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Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Octet for Wind Instruments (1923, rev. 1952) [15:42]
L’Histoire du Soldat (1918) [45:08]*
Jan Opalach, narrator*
The Eastman Wind Ensemble and Eastman Virtuosi/Mark Davis Scatterday
rec. 11-12 May (Octet) and 25 September 2011, Eastman East Wing.
AVIE AV2277 [60:52]

This is an intriguing release, but I don’t feel the need to linger overly long on its qualities. Stravinsky’s Octet for Wind Instruments is very well played here with only occasional very minor fluffs when cornering through some of Stravinsky’s trickier passages, such as the poor flute at 2:26 in the first movement. The trouble is everything is mercilessly exposed with the recording in an acoustic drier than James Bond’s Martini. Compared to my reference under Robert Craft on Naxos 8.557507 it sounds as if the musicians are working in a broom cupboard, and it is a credit to them that they make the music sound so effective in these circumstances. While the playing is excellent, the sonorities don’t blend as much and there is a rather boxed-in feel, that of potential energy rather than dynamic flow and freedom of expression entirely released. You hear this difference most acutely when put up against the Craft/Naxos version which is admittedly perhaps even a bit over acoustic, but is certainly a more satisfying listening experience and a much more rousing performance.
L’Histoire du Soldat lives or dies by its narrator, and former opera star Jan Opalach does pretty well. We’re still plagued by that dry acoustic, which may at times remind ageing UK readers of the soundtracks to the work of Oliver Postgate. Opalach’s accent is American of course, but by no means hard to follow. It’s only when you encounter the likes of Jeremy Irons on the Sony Classics label, working with the Columbia Chamber Orchestra and conducted by the composer in 1967, that you are treated to a real multiplicity of characters. Irons' performance was apparently added long after the fact, but his is an extraordinarily good performance, full of little subtleties and superbly understated for the most part. Irons’ Soldier is something of an Eton schoolboy and he is helped by some production trickery, his voice divided between two channels when in conversation, but his narration is utterly captivating and at times disturbingly haunting. Opalach’s characterisations are good, but without quite the sense of believable fantasy which Irons manages. The text has been expurgated somewhat as well. For instance, we aren’t treated to the Soldier’s girlfriend’s married and pregnant status on his return, or his coarse swearing at the Devil when he finds out what has happened.
As with the Octet the musical performance with this Avie recording is effective but utterly closeted. The tuning of the violin is something of a trial each time - too much of a ‘performance’ where the Columbia player convinces with less extreme glissandi. There are few enough recordings of The Soldier’s Tale in its complete form, and I wish I could welcome this one more. There is another Naxos alternative, 8.55366-2, with the Northern Chamber Orchestra conducted by Nicholas Ward, which is very good. In this case the characters are taken by three different actors which creates an entirely different dynamic to the one conducted by Stravinsky so it’s not an entirely fair comparison, but in any case I can’t say I prefer this to Jeremy Irons’ vocal virtuosity. The Devil sounds more like a genial Great-Uncle than a menacing force of evil, and the Michael Flanders adaptation is also less pithy than that used in the Columbia recording.
For the want of a decently spacious recording venue I’m afraid this Avie disc loses out to pretty much all of the available alternatives in both of these works, which is a great shame.
Dominy Clements