His three great pre-First World War ballets and the opera Le Rossignol
all employ large or even very large orchestras. By contrast L’histoire du soldat
employs a small group of seven musicians together with three actors and a dancer. It was intended to be capable of being toured as a kind of entertainment “to be read, played and danced”. Although performances and recordings of the Suite drawn from it are not uncommon I am in no doubt that the music works best when heard in conjunction with the original text and action.
In the version seen here the action is expanded by the use of additional dancers with the actors kept out of sight. In other ways Stravinsky’s creation with the writer Charles Ramuz is treated reasonably faithfully. We see the Soldier’s mother and Fiancée as well as a few invented characters but the original plot is retained albeit somewhat expanded. Straightaway may I express my pleasure at a producer who does not think they know better than the original authors.
The plot is that of a typical folk ballad. It tells of a soldier returning from service who encounters the Devil who wants to buy his violin. In due course he succeeds, thus in effect obtaining the soldier’s soul. The soldier tricks the Devil into returning it, but in the end he is back in his clutches again.
Stravinsky’s music includes marches, chorales and a group of three dances – tango, valse and ragtime. The sound produced by an instrumental group including violin, double bass, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone and - given especial prominence – percussion is wholly individual. Even within the composer’s large output it remains unique in its soundworld, which is very well captured here under David Porcelijn and cleanly recorded. However the extension of the dancing in this version means that the choreography tends to attract the listener’s attention most. In its extraordinary and often hyperactive way it does tend to reduce the prominence of the music. The wonderfully characterful movement given to the Devil is especially memorable, This must present an even more formidable challenge in live performances of this version as he is on stage for very large parts of the action. The ballet was apparently filmed in a studio rather than a theatre, permitting both more space and more interesting camera angles.
Although I still believe that in principle the original form of the work, in which dance, acting and music are equal partners, remains preferable, this is a performance of such terrific panache and individuality as to overcome any objections
Previous review (Blu-ray):