Peter and the Wolf is the gold standard by which any narrative music for children featuring a speaker and orchestra is inevitably going to be judged. Prokofiev's ability to capture the essence of his characters with such economy and simplicity might not seem like such a monumental achievement if it were not for the fact that no subsequent piece in that genre has come close to matching its integrity and charm, much less the level of its musical inspiration.
The fact, though, that composers, writers, and orchestras continue to create narrated pieces for children is a very good thing for a number of reasons.The music brings children (or encourages parents to bring their children) into a concert environment, where the story line, ideally accompanied by music, will awaken them to the magic of the symphony orchestra. Also, the continuing creation of children's pieces may one day lead to the creation of a worthy successor to Prokofiev's masterpiece. None of the works recorded here are that piece (although The Snowman comes closer than many others), but each has value and the potential to amuse and entertain young audiences.
Two of the pieces recorded here have the strong advantage of a text by, or adapted from, the sly and subversive children's author Roald Dahl, whose take on the stories of "Little Red Riding Hood" and "The Three Little Pigs" is considerably more naughty and gruesome than the traditional versions. Composer Paul Patterson has essentially written incidental music, which is continuous under the narration, making it necessary for the speaker to be amplified. The music mostly illustrates the situations described, sometimes with delicacy and wit, but more often with exaggeration and bombast. The result is likely to be fun for children under a certain age, but less so for adults.
In contrast, Howard Blake's The Snowman, adapted from the picture book by Raymond Briggs, is a model of understatement and musical consistency. The level of musical intensity always matches the dramatic intensity of the story, clearly the result of Blake's extensive experience as a film composer. The orchestration is appropriately light and shimmery, and the music has continuity and stylistic integrity, making this a piece that's likely to appeal to a broad audience. Its single song, "Walking in the Air," performed winsomely by treble Sam Oliver, is genuinely haunting.
The London Philharmonic Orchestra, which frequently performs these pieces at its children's concerts, plays with verve under conductor David Parry. British children's television host Chris Jarvis is an expert narrator, performing The Snowman with the reserve it requires, and hamming up the Dahl stories with nasty gusto.