Where 007 met Dame Edna, Dracula and Bill Clinton

The 42nd US President joins a long line of greats to appear on a recording of 'Peter and the Wolf'. Simon O'Hagan on the history of a classic
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The Independent Culture

You were once the president of the United States. You are now an unofficial roving ambassador and international statesman. Your charisma is the envy of other world leaders. And you are still only 57. So where does Bill Clinton go from here? It's obvious when you think about it: Peter and the Wolf.

Sergei Prokofiev's 1936 fable with music is not just a children's classic - an educational tool by which millions of us have learnt the different sounds that the instruments make and how an orchestra fits together. It has also proved to be the ultimate star vehicle.

Long before the explosion in audiobooks, opportunities to reach into schools and homes with a piece of recorded narration were limited. But Peter and the Wolf - a 25-minute job with plenty of breaks for the music - was one way of doing it, and still is.

A plethora of recordings over the last half-century has supplied the needs of the classroom, and some of the biggest names in showbiz and beyond have queued up to tell the story of Peter (strings), the bird (flute), the cat (clarinet), the duck (oboe), the grandfather (bassoon), the wolf (horns), the huntsmen (woodwind section), and the huntsmen's guns (timpani).

When Peter and the Wolf was performed at this year's Proms, a narrator was hired who combined expertise in the subject with a place in the nation's affections that were possibly unmatched: Sir David Attenborough. But that's the kind of stature the role seems to demand.

The list that Sir David joined includes such titans of stage and screen as Sir John Gielgud, Sir Ralph Richardson, Jack Lemmon, Christopher Lee, Boris Karloff, and Alec McCowen. Among the more improbable castings have been Dame Edna Everage, Sting, David Bowie, and Sean Connery in his 1966 James Bond prime. And let's not forget Patrick Stewart or Lenny Henry.

Strictly speaking, Bill Clinton is not about to take his place in the "P&W" pantheon. But he's there by association in a new CD in which - wait for it - Mikhail Gorbachev introduces a version narrated by Sophia Loren, and Clinton narrates "Wolf Tracks", a new work by Frenchman Jean-Pascal Beintus that carries "a modern environmental message". Narrators' royalties will, of course, go to charity.

Prokofiev was 45 when he wrote Peter and the Wolf. He was back in Russia after spending nearly 20 years in America and France, and began visiting the Moscow Children's Theatre with his two young sons. Stalinism was at its height, and the Soviet youth that attended the theatre were fed a diet of propaganda and innocent drama. When Prokofiev was invited to write a piece for the theatre, he felt that he couldn't refuse. But he also saw it as an opportunity.

The story, as well as the music, were Prokofiev's own. "He was a great lover of literature," Prokofiev's biographer Daniel Jaffe explains. "He had written some brilliant poetry."

Jaffe says Prokofiev described the words as "a handrail" for children to hang on to while listening to the music. "It's where Peter and the Wolf scores over, say, Benjamin Britten's Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra," says Barry Wordsworth, who conducted the BBC Concert Orchestra in this year's Proms performance of Peter and the Wolf. "The Britten piece is really there just to show off the orchestra."

For older listeners in 1936, the story conveyed a wider meaning. "That was quite a scary year for Soviet composers," Jaffe says. "Shostakovich had just been slammed by Pravda for Lady Macbeth. So the safest thing a composer could do was write for children. But Peter and the Wolf is also, of course, an allegory."

It wasn't just a case of representing evil in the form of the wolf - "a public criticism of Stalin," says Jaffe. Peter and the Wolf is also about having the courage to take a stand against it. "Prokofiev felt that you mustn't run away from evil. It was part of his Christian science belief. He thought that if you confronted it head on then it would evaporate."

What then of the music? Barry Wordsworth refers to the strength of its inspiration. "The melodies are so memorable. I'm not sure that the story itself is particularly gripping, but what is wonderful is the way that the music interacts with it, creating a sort of sound picture." The contrast between the group of strings that depict Peter and the solo instruments used elsewhere is intended, Jaffe says, to emphasise Peter's more rounded character.

That leaves the narration. Wordsworth thinks the piece works best when performed with the intimacy of an "old man talking to his grandson on his knee". It doesn't lend itself to the "grand manner". Of the recordings I have listened to, that would rule out Christopher Lee and Sean Connery. The mateyness of Sting may be more what Wordsworth has in mind, and Sophia Loren is certainly beguiling. But if it is danger wrapped up in cosiness that you're after, then it has to be Dame Edna.

And Bill Clinton narrating "Wolf Tracks"? As with all these narrators, it depends to some extent on what you think of the person already. If you are susceptible to Clinton's charms and can stand the homily, you will not be disappointed.

'Peter and the Wolf' and 'Wolf Tracks', with Mikhail Gorbachev, Sophia Loren and Bill Clinton, is out now on Pentatone at £14.99