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Frank H. Wu
Fanfare, July 2009

People come to classical music through different means, but most fans nowadays probably have been exposed to it through family and friends who enjoy recordings rather than through their own amateur performances or at church. This two-disc compilation in the “Junior Classics” line is ready made for parents who are ambitious for their children to acquire culture but themselves unable to present it for whatever reason. It presents the life, times, and works of Vivaldi, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Dvořák, and Shostakovich.

A total of 74 selections, beginning with Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and continuing through Shostakovich’s film scores, are interspersed with a narrative written by Classic FM station manager Darren Henley and read by Baltimore Symphony Orchestra conductor Marin Alsop. There also are dramatizations of biographical episodes enacted largely in English, the native language of none of the protagonists, with sound effects in the background. CD-ROM extras offer more: a bit of text, static photos, and some short audio clips. (The material overlaps slightly with the four-disc set, “Story of Classical Music”, by the same team. [NA331012])

The musical selections are drawn from the extensive Naxos catalog. For example, the artists include the Vienna Mozart Orchestra, Kodály Quartet, Jenő Jandó playing Mozart, and the Slovak Symphony Orchestra and Nicolaus Esterházy Sinfonia playing Beethoven. All of the performances are good or better, and the recording quality is fine.

The text is at least as good as that found in books such as The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Classical Music, and it is pitched at a level that even adults could play repeatedly without offense to their sensibilities. Alsop speaks crisply and with appropriately varying tones, if not with the polish of the best audio-book actors. She addresses the audience directly; for example, she notes, “Vivaldi even wrote concertos for an instrument which you might even have played yourself—the recorder.” A representative story is the familiar but possibly apocryphal account of Bach’s Goldberg Variations having been commissioned as a sleeping aid. Dvořák’s enthusiasm for train spotting is recounted. Shostakovich’s political difficulties with the Communist regime of the Soviet Union are treated lightly.

This is an engaging set. It is exactly what it claims to be, neither less nor more: an introduction to classical music for children through the works of a half-dozen composers. Anyone who disagrees with this sampling would likely be able to supplement these discs with his or her own to good effect. Along with Benjamin Britten’s Young Persons’ Guide to the Orchestra [8.554170, Sergei Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf [with Britten’s Young Person’s Guide & Saint-Saëns’s Carnival of the Animals 8.550499 or 8.550335], and an adult with a good collection, this package should effectively encourage an ordinary kid toward a lifetime of listening. It would make a nice gift for a nephew or niece. The price, equal to a premium compact disc, seems reasonable. So it is recommended warmly.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group