- The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck, for narrator & orchestra
- The Tale of Peter Rabbit, for narrator & orchestra
- The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin, for narrator & orchestra
- The Tale of Samuel Whiskers, for narrator & orchestra
The best way to learn exactly what these Four Tales from Beatrix Potter are, and how charming and enchanting they are, is to just put the CD in the player and listen. They are some of Potter's most popular stories set in music in a way that combines narration and musical accompaniment with original songs. From the keepsake-like packaging they would appear to be just narrations with music, and from just a quick glance at the extensive notes they appear to be just incidental music for staged performances of the stories. But they really are settings made for this recording -- and which would be suitable for concert performance -- that retell the stories with just one actor/singer and an orchestra in a way that will appeal to children and parents. The music by Stephen McNeff is wonderfully descriptive, unmistakably capturing the devilish slyness of the fox in Jemima Puddleduck and the race-like chase of Peter Rabbit by Farmer MacGregor. The BBC Concert Orchestra and conductor Clark Rundell are excellent in this type of music. It's lighter than most contemporary concert music, but McNeff's does not dumb-down his writing just because it's meant for children. He uses a full palette of orchestral colors and a symphonic language that will inevitably bring to mind Prokofiev's "Peter and the Wolf," but the way songs are inserted into the stories goes beyond Prokofiev's folktale. McNeff is able to successfully combine elements of musical theater with concert music. The songs have tunes that children will easily pick up, with appealing lyrics by Adrian Mitchell, who also adapted the original texts for narration. Jemima's song "Pit pat paddle pat" and Rabbits' "Green little berries" are two of the more memorable. Farmer MacGregor's song, "I loves all the aminals" [sic] has that sarcasm that Fagin's "You've Got to Pick a Pocket or Two" has in Lionel Bart's "Oliver!." That ability to speak to both children and adults is why McNeff is one of the most popular composers of children's music in Britain. Of course, none of this would be as engaging as it is if someone less talented than Imelda Staunton where to perform it. She is called on not only to sing and narrate, but to perform in character for all the parts, from the deep Scottish voice of Farmer MacGregor to the high, teasing voice of Squirrel Nutkin. There are few actors who come to mind quickly who could carry this off so skillfully, so facilely, and so captivatingly. Four Tales from Beatrix Potter goes way beyond most children's "classical" releases, giving kids something other than the ubiquitous "Peter and the Wolf" or "Carnival of the Animals" or fairy tale narrations with Tchaikovsky played in the background. It gives them a new way to enjoy some treasured stories.