Stravinsky The Soldiers Tale Elder Hallé CDHLL7560

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)
The Soldier’s Tale (L’histoire du soldat) (1918)
Richard Katz: Narrator
Martins Imhangbe: The Soldier
Mark Lockyer: The Devil
Musicians of the Hallé/Sir Mark Elder
rec. 2021, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, and other unidentified locations
Hallé CDHLL7560 [58]

Roy Westbrook’s excellent introduction to this work in his review of the LSO live recording from 2015 review captures exactly why this charming short piece deserves to be trotted out before the public more frequently; therefore, I reproduce it in the paragraph below.

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.

This new release from the Hallé label derives from a filmed performance that was created during one of the lockdown times for digital broadcast. Some of the dialogue sections have been recorded in the concert hall and others derive from outdoor recording sessions. This occasionally creates a jarring transition for listening at home, especially when there are no visuals to help re-orient the listener. The various marches and dances that make up this score are often filled with the folk dance rhythms of central Europe. In this regard the brief but scintillating score reveals itself to be a sort of candle burning in the dark around which the rest of Europe was disintegrating. The musicians of the Hallé demonstrate exquisite playing for Sir Mark Elder. Just one example is the wailing woodwind phrases of the Pastorale when the soldier begins to realize the pickle he is in. Similarly Sir Mark brings out Austro-Hungarian associations of the cleverly inverted Royal March. Throughout the recording quality is excellent and the musicians are perfectly placed within the sound field.

The choice of this recording over one of the other English language versions pretty much depends on one’s reaction to the actors who read the long sections of dialogue. On this disc we are treated to three actors speaking their roles, as in the excellent Naxos recording with the Northern Chamber Orchestra, (not reviewed for MWI). The aforementioned LSO Live version has one actor taking on all three roles. For this recording Martins Imhangbe’ Soldier is a warm and likeable everyman character, a Papageno with a working class British accent. Mark Lockyer’s Devil is by turns urbane, seductive and overbearing, and he veers between these various attitudes like quicksilver. For contrast the Naxos recording has Jonathan Keeble who delivers a Devil with a much deeper voice, and therefore a more traditionally, threatening sound. Both actors fully relish the role so the choice is a matter purely for the listener’s taste.

Mike Parr

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Hallé Musicians:
Peter Liang – Leader/Violin
Billy Cole – Double Bass
Sergio Castelló López – Clarinet
Emily Hultmark – Bassoon
Gareth Small – Trumpet
Katy Jones – Trombone
David Hext – Percussion