It’s well known that David Bowie was not afraid to experiment, whose penchant for theatre, film and even pantomime were all important and vital aspects in his creative approach. So when the opportunity arose for him to narrate Sergei Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf (apparently RCA’s first choice was Alec Guinness, followed by Peter Ustinov, but both declined), Bowie wasn’t too far back in coming forward to volunteer his services.
Released in 1978, anyone expecting this to be some sort of avant-garde pop-rock experience will be genuinely disappointed, because this is one album that was never intended for the enjoyment of adults. In fact, Prokofiev wrote the music, and story, with the intention of introducing young children to the wonders of symphonic music back in 1936, something which RCA, on this release, chose to remain faithful to, which means that the beginning of the LP contains a brief section describing each of the instruments and what they represent, i.e. the clarinet is the cat, the oboe represents the duck, the bassoon Peter’s grandfather, and the French horn the wolf himself.
First of all, Bowie’s narration is both elegant and engaging, whose soft, well spoken voice takes the listener, whether young or old, on an entertaining journey, where the music itself acts as a seductive and descriptive way of telling the story, illuminating the listener’s mind with all manner of evocative expression and imagery. Bowie is excellent throughout, managing to heighten the experience purely through his voice, proving himself to be a natural born thespian.
The Philadelphia Orchestra also do a wonderful job, and while I’m no expert when it comes to classical arrangement, they pull the whole thing off with aplomb. The second side of the LP is devoted entirely to Benjamin Britten‘s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, conducted by Eugene Ormandy, and is of more educational value, thus having little if anything to do with the tale itself.
Whether young children today would find this record compelling I cannot say, but in my own time, before the internet and mobile phones, a record like this was considered to be genuine entertainment, where listening was just as important as watching. Should any parent buy this album for their kids in this modern technological age remains to be seen, but Peter And The Wolf, nearly forty years after it was made, retains a charm and unique place in my heart. And while I might have easily enjoyed Aladdin Sane, Peter And The Wolf made for another-worldly experience, at least when a boy myself. But not only that, the album cover alone, if nothing else, was also captivating, in a strange yet charismatic way, as if both Bowie and the wolf hold you in their equally seductive stare.