3 November 2017 | TheLittleSongbird
Prokoviev magic with Abbado and Sting
Have always highly appreciated Sergei Prokoviev (though he is not quite one of my favourite composers) and his music. So it is always lovely to see or hear anything by him, whether it is 'Peter and the Wolf', 'Romeo and Juliet', 'Cinderella' or any of his operas.
This DVD contains two of his most famous and perhaps most accessible works, 'Peter and the Wolf' and his first symphony, nicknamed "The Classical" (one can hear the classical-era, particularly Haydn in a very loose way, influence in the last two movements especially while being distinctively Prokoviev). It also contains two works not so familiar to me, the B flat major March and the Overture on Hebrew Themes, the former being one heard about twice before and the latter being completely new to me. Having four Prokoviev works on one DVD is well worth watching it alone, then there are the further attractions of having Claudio Abbado conducting, have always liked him, and the on paper odd but actually very interesting decisions to use Spitting Image puppetry and having Sting (of all people) as the narrator.
Found this to be really wonderful, there is so much that comes off superbly and even the very little that don't quite come off as well have interest value. What seemed odd and not expected on paper and in hindsight actually turn out really well, and that's an understatement. Let's get the very little that didn't quite come off as well out of the way first. While intriguing, beautiful visually and extremely well played, the Overture with Hebrew Themes segment seemed somewhat out of place and one can be forgiven if the grandfather being Prokoviev concept goes over their heads.
Everything else is impossible to fault. It is magnificent musically. Prokoviev's music is that enough, and then it is given justice by top notch orchestral playing throughout. Particularly good is as expected 'Peter and the Wolf', though the sprightly excitement of the playing of the March is hard to ignore. Abbado demonstrates that he should have recorded more Prokoviev in his career, one is very spoilt for choice when it comes to recordings of Prokoviev (Valery Gergiev being a prolific example for good reason, apparently Prokoviev is his favourite composer and you can hear it every time Gergiev conducts his music) but Abbado's contribution here is truly dynamic and exciting as well as respectful.
What seemed a strange combination on paper is a combination that comes off in the best of ways. Sting seemed a strange choice for narrator for 'Peter and the Wolf', but actually he does a wonderful job with it. His delivery is enthusiastic and astonishingly vivid, he clearly had fun with it and there is a real sense that he loves the work. He particularly relishes the more exciting and tension-laden parts, like the first appearance of the wolf, but wisely restrains himself from "hamming up". The writing for the narration has always been part of why the work is so timeless and accessible for younger audiences. It tells the story so well, in a way that children and adults of all ages will follow without problem, and doesn't over-explain, which is such a danger with narration in general.
Can't say enough good things about the expertly rendered puppetry. Particularly good are the cat and the wolf, which must have been the hardest characters to do. There are lots of delightful visual gags and comic moments, not just in 'Peter and the Wolf' (the duck at the end, haha) but also "The Classical Symphony", even Abbado himself gets in on the fun, and there is a real sense of the theatrical. The whole "Prokoviev Fantasy" concept is done brilliantly.
DVD itself is good technically, with the sound allowing the viewer to properly enjoy Prokoviev's music and the photography and picture quality do justice to the images.
Overall, wonderful and anybody who loves or appreciates Prokoviev will get a kick out of it. 9/10 Bethany Cox