Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
The Soldier’s Tale (L'histoire du soldat) 1918
Malcolm Sinclair (spoken parts: Narrator, The Soldier, The Devil)
LSO Chamber Ensemble/Roman Simovic (violin)
rec. live, 31 October 2015, Jerwood Hall, LSO St. Luke’s, London
LSO LIVE LSO5074 SACD [55:36]
Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale is based on a Faustian yarn from Russian folklore and was created in collaboration with his friend the Swiss writer Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz. He and Stravinsky were both short of money owing to the disruptions of the 1914-18 war and Ramuz came up with the idea of an inexpensive piece intended to be “read, played and danced” by a small troupe of travelling performers, using a stage on a trestle so that it could be given even in smaller places with no theatre. It never worked out like that, in fact, and is familiar today mainly as a suite for chamber group. It was partly planned that way, though, with very little of the text to be spoken to musical accompaniment, such that the text and the music could be composed separately and the latter could have an independent afterlife. There is relatively little music in the whole work which is not also heard in the suite, which omits only three numbers from the eleven of the full score, but there is still something to be said for hearing the entire original work, with the full text playing its role in contributing to the planned artistic effect. At several points, Stravinsky’s brilliantly inventive score – as revolutionary in its way as The Rite of Spring of five years earlier - gains extra poignancy from being heard in its narrative context.
In choosing a recording of the full score, one key consideration should be the narrator. For home listening this is, after all, basically a play with incidental music. Some recordings have three different actors, one to narrate and two more to play the characters of the Soldier and the Devil, but it can also work well with a single story-teller, if it’s really well told. Here the actor Malcolm Sinclair is an asset. He has no hint of the grand thespian manner, yet undemonstratively compels attention from the outset. The rhyming couplets of the engaging English translation – here uncredited but sounding like the standard ones by Michael Flanders and Kitty Black - are convincingly delivered. Sinclair never sounds stilted; he characterises the soldier in demotic tones and the devil more suavely – both are persuasively voiced with no mannerisms. He also links rhythmically to the beat and tempo in the few moments when text and music overlap or are intercut, as in the very opening of the work, and especially in The Devil’s Song – which is spoken, not sung, to percussion accompaniment.
The London Symphony Orchestra has some remarkable musicians occupying its front desks these days (as in 2015 when this concert was given), and here are seven of them forming the LSO Chamber Ensemble, providing a superb account of this music, individually and collectively. What a band! To pick out a couple of the many highlights: Rachel Gough’s bassoon leading off in the lovely Pastorale, Philip Cobb’s virtuosity in the metrically tricky arabesques in the Royal March – you will hear why Cobb is such a great favourite with London’s Barbican audience - and of course Roman Simovic’s violin almost everywhere. Simovic manages to suggest the rustic fiddling manner needed for the solo role, without overdoing the folksy element. The SACD recording is near to ideal – these superb LSO players, liberated from the Barbican acoustic in which the LSO Live label usually traps them, are wonderfully well caught. The sound is so tactile and realistic that the cliché about being in the room with the listener for once holds true, though they are never too close or dry. The speaking voice too is well recorded and in scale, not breathily close but seemingly set on the platform with the instruments (just as was intended in 1918). This was the work of the great producer James Mallinson, the veteran who scooped numerous awards for his work over many years, and whose death was announced just as this was released. It is quite a tribute to his skill and sensitivity. There is also a good booklet note from Michael Jaffé, explaining the complex genesis and development of the piece.
BBC Radio 3 some years ago selected the very fine 1998 Naxos version with the Northern Chamber Orchestra as its “library choice” for a complete Soldier’s Tale. That has three actors who are more ‘theatrical’ in presentation and have greater prominence in the recorded mix. It’s a studio recording and if it thus has less of the feeling of a live performance. it too is superbly played, and remains an excellent choice. Furthermore, the disc has fifteen minutes more music, adding a lively account of Stravinsky’s attractive Dumbarton Oaks Concerto. There is also a recording from the Naïve Classique label in the original French with Gerard Depardieu, led by Shlomo Mintz, though I have not heard that. But the narration, playing and recording on this disc are not surpassed by any other version that I know. The final numbers, the Great Chorale and the Triumphal March of the Devil are, respectively, affecting and uproarious. A triumph indeed.