Poulenc: The Story of Babar, the Little Elephant read by Miriam Margolyes
A delightful set of circumstances combined to produce the beloved masterpiece, Babar. The journey began in 1930 when Laurent and Mathieu, sons of French author and illustrator Jean de Brunhoff were told an enchanting bedtime story by their mother, Cécile. So moved were the young boys by the curious tale of the young elephant’s adventures, that they asked their father to create illustrations. The resulting book initiated a series that was to be the crowning achievement of Jean de Brunhoff’s short professional life, and that of his son Laurent, who added further volumes following his father’s death in 1937. The children have acknowledged that the story originated with Cécile de Brunhoff, who, feeling that her contribution was too small to be credited, requested that her name be removed from the publications.
In a heart-warmingly similar situation ten years later, Poulenc was spending time with the granddaughter of one of his cousins. Noting that she became bored with the music he was playing, Poulenc put Brunhoff’s Babar on the piano and began to improvise, to the great delight of the young girl. The musical ideas born that day were to simmer away at the back of Poulenc’s mind until he completed the work in 1945. It was premiered on French radio the following year.
Miriam Margolyes is the latest in the remarkable line-up of actors and occasional singers to tackle it on disc, and her new recording with Simon Callaghan is both genuinely delightful and probes the work's ambiguities in a beautifully understated way. She narrates it with admirable simplicity, without resorting to archness or affectation, but where she really scores high is the sense of wonder she brings to the tale she tells, which in itself is deeply affecting. Callaghan, meanwhile, plays it extremely well, and is nicely alert to its grace, humour and emotional shifts without over-exaggerating the comedy or veering towards sentimentality. He has great fun with Poulenc's excited depiction of Babar digging in the sand with a shell, and with the slightly delirious waltz to which he scoffs cake with his cousins Arthur and Celeste. But the passage in which Babar cries for his dead mother is really touching, and the closing nocturne is absolutely exquisite. It's a lovely performance, and highly recommended.
Anyone who grew up, as I did, on Jean de Brunhoff’s Babar books will find this CD entrancing. For those unfortunates who missed this experience in their early childhood, Babar was a warm-hearted, public-spirited elephant whose elevation to the throne of a realm suspiciously similar to France, and whose gently socialist leadership of that country in war and peace, was made to seem the most natural thing in the world. Brunhoff was a French children’s book author and illustrator whose wife Cécile concocted the story of Babar as a bedtime treat for her two sons; the first Babar book was published in 1931, and it was followed by six further titles in the series.
With their charmingly witty drawings, the books became a cult, and the composer Francis Poulenc was one of the army of fans. What we have here, thanks to Harry Potter actor Miriam Margolyes’s artistry and Simon Callaghan’s excellent pianism, is Poulenc’s delightful musical response. And as I listened to this recording, I found the original drawings reappearing in my mind with all their detail intact – extraordinary. It lasts just 30 minutes, but my god does it resonate.
★ ★ ★ ★ ★ The Independent
This is the first CD I have heard that was recorded under Covid 19-related 'lockdown' conditions; and let me say at once that it is a triumph for all concerned. The two acoustics used seem to be perfectly well balanced and co-ordinated, and the performance itself as well integrated as if the two artists had been in the same room.
Jean de Brunhoff’s story of Babar the little elephant should be a part of everyone’s childhood, and Francis Poulenc’s superb score gives us all the joy of hearing it read out loud alongside sublime and entertaining music. Unlike melodrama type pieces, this is simple storytelling without overly dramatic overtones, and with a similar effect to Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf though not with that piece’s thematic distinctiveness. The booklet notes for this release tell us that “Poulenc was spending time with the granddaughter of one of his cousins. Noting that she became bored with the music he was playing, Poulenc put Brunhoff’s Barbar on the piano and began to improvise, to the great delight of the young girl...”
Music Web International - Classical Review
Babar the Elephant began as a bedtime story told to Laurent and Mathieu, sons of French author and illustrator Jean de Brunhoff, by their mother, Cécile. The children begged their father to create illustrations for the story and the resulting book became the first in a series of hugely popular children’s stories, which are still enjoyed by children today. Francis Poulenc’s accompaniment to The Story of Babar, the Little Elephant was also inspired by children – he improvised some music to entertain the granddaughter of one of his cousins, and by 1945 he had completed the work, dedicating it to “my little cousins Sophie, Sylvie, Benoît, Florence and Delphine Périer; Yvan, Alain, Marie-Christine and Marguerite-Marie Villotte; And my little friends Marthe Bosredon and André Lecœur, in memory of Brive” (Francis Poulenc). The result is an enchanting and engaging accompaniment to a favourite book of childhood, premiered by the composer himself in 1946.
In this delightful new recording on the Nimbus label, one of our best-loved actresses and raconteurs, Miriam Margolyes, narrates this favourite children’s story. Her voice is familiar to many, and she is an instinctive and characterful narrator who brings both warmth and drama to the words.
“Stories are a human need and children love being told them….music enhances the experience” says Miriam Margolyes in an interview on BBC Radio 3’s In Tune programme. Poulenc’s music has a charming naÏvety which makes it instantly accessible, but it’s also colourful and varied, and the piano part has several stand-alone descriptive pieces such as Lullaby, Reverie and Nocturne, which contain some of Poulenc’s best writing for the piano.
For pianist Simon Callaghan, this recording marks the start of a project to record all of Poulenc’s piano music for Nimbus, and is “the best way I could imagine to start this off” (Simon Callaghan speaking on Radio 3). Here his playing is responsive and lively, with a delightfully sparkly timbre in the upper registers, and an evocative ponderousness of elephant footsteps in bass chords. He told me via Twitter that he and Miriam “had such a ball” making the recording, and this is certainly evident in the piano sound which feels so spontaneous and inventive, infused with drama, humour and tenderness.
This charming recording of a children’s classic is sure to keep listeners young and old captivated. Recommended.