Debussy “The Toy Box” & Poulenc “The Story of Babar”

About this CD

As a follow up to his acclaimed solo piano CD “Of Lands and People Far Away” (that includes Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition which American Record Guide placed “among the best ever made” and selected it for or its Critics’ Choice 2008 List), pianist/producer Sergei Kvitko, joined by narrator Ken Beachler, creates a CD of entirely different story-telling. Alongside the all-time favorite crowd-pleaser by Francis Poulenc, The Story of Babar, comes a lesser-known work by another Frenchman, Claude Debussy’s La Boîte à joujoux (The Toy Box), presented here for the first time as a version for solo piano and English narration. A perfect match, these two works provide a fun and entertaining way to introduce children to classical music, and yet they are complex and sophisticated enough to be appreciated by a seasoned listener. In any case these witty, charming masterworks are sure to bring a smile to your face!

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Debussy’s late (1913) work, La Boite a Joujoux, has now come my way a third time in the past year, and each has been a different and wonderful experience. Debussy wrote that it was a ballet in four tableaux, composed “for children’s Christmas and New Year’s albums—a work to amuse children, nothing more”. While fully enjoyable as just music, there is so much more in the score and the narration. My first encounter with the work was in Jean-Efflam Bavouzet’s series of his piano music (Chandos10545, Mar/Apr 2010—no narration). ThenYvonne Lefebure played the piano part, with French narration by Pierre Bertin (Solstice 258, Sept/Oct 2010). The narration added to, rather than detracted from, the music; but my French was not good enough to understand it without a translation. Now, in the current performance, the narration is in English; and it is totally captivating—unquestionably the best presentation I have yet heard of this work. Beachler is a superb narrator and Kvitko a sensitive pianist—also the sound engineer for the Blue Griffin label. Their ensemble is like a great singer and pianist, and, unlike a song, the vocal part here is not written out in any rhythmic detail. The words are printed over the piano part in only an approximation of how they might go with the music. The artists are required to make many decisions, and they have honed their interpretation through public performances. They bring a life to the music and text that makes this one of the most outstanding releases to come my way in a long time.

The Poulenc was not familiar to me, but the same high performance standards are evident. The story (by Jean de Brunhof) offers ample opportunity for the full range of Poulenc’s compositional skill and wit. Animals from elephants to birds, an auto chase, characters dancing, a royal coronation, many different moods, from very sad deaths to triumphant victories, are all effectively supported by wonderful music. The sound of voice and piano is perfectly balanced. Here we find many more spoken phrases followed by a musical depiction of what was just said. In the Debussy, there was more integration of the piano and voice.

While both works may have been intended for young audiences, the musical sophistication and the performances here are probably going to be best appreciated by people with some years of listening experience and an affinity for French piano music. The originals may have been in French, but, unlike songs that often do not sound (or sing) as well in translation, this presentation in English makes a big difference to me. Each hearing brings to light another nuance, and everything works so well.

HARRINGTON American Record Guide

The best children’s music must also appeal to adults (who doesn’t love Peter and the Wolf?), and based on that criterion, this album is a winner. Debussy and Poulenc approach their tasks in different ways, but both share that special combination of a kind of straightforward dramatic shaping that kids respond to as well as a deft and subtle handling of the music. In balance, Debussy’s late-in-life work, which was probably intended for full orchestra, is the more artful work of the two, but Poulenc displays a more intuitive sense for theatrical effect. To cite but one example, the music for Babar’s wedding and coronation has a subdued magnificence that would not be out of place in a grand opera. Indeed, there are echoes of Poulenc’s stage works throughout the piece.

Ken Beachler, a Michigan-based actor and theater producer, delivers his lines, in English translation, with a mellifluous serenity. Sergei Kvitko is a sensitive and agile pianist. Having once been a child myself, I could imagine some sense of the effectiveness of this collaboration, but I also solicited the opinions of two young friends. Shira, age nine, found the Debussy to be “good music for a background of a stage, and it is also gentle music.” Her older brother, Aaron, offered a range of reactions to the Poulenc, which he considered, at turns, to be “calming, enthusiastic, wild, and sleepy.” That would be four little thumbs up for this sweet undertaking.

Peter Burwasser Fanfare Magazine. May/June 2011


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