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]

The fiftieth anniversary of Igor Stravinsky’s death occurred in 2021, which the Hallé commemorated with a film directed by Annabel Arden of The Soldier’s Tale broadcast on BBC Four television on Remembrance Sunday 2022. 

The Hallé’s production of Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale was filmed during the coronavirus lockdowns and restrictions both on the Bridgewater Hall stage and using local Manchester locations and this new recording uses remastered audio from the film soundtrack.

During World War One Stravinsky and his family emigrated to live in neutral Switzerland. There, Stravinsky was living amongst a group of artists who were all in the same boat, struggling for money, having lost their livelihood due to a lack of employment opportunities. A plan was hatched to write and perform an uncomplicated form of theatre piece that was inexpensive and straightforward to stage and could be toured around Swiss villages, towns and cities.

Stravinsky knew Alexander Afanasyev’s Russian folk tale about a soldier and the devil, and was inspired by it together with similarly themed fables to create a storyline moving the time forward to the end of the war. Swiss writer Charles Ferdinand Ramuz created the libretto from the plot that Stravinsky had outlined. This is a dramatic music-theatre work lasting around an hour ‘to be read, played and danced’ in two parts, employing three actors, and dancer scored for a pared-down group of seven instrumental players positioned on the stage. With Swiss patron Werner Reinhart providing the sponsorship, L’Histoire du soldat was premiered under Ernest Ansermet in Lausanne in September 1918.

This is a grim and unsettling parable or morality tale of a soldier trudging home on leave from the Great War. He meets the devil and in a Faustian pact trades his old violin (emblematic of his soul) for a magic book that will bring him wealth, effectively selling his soul to him. Stravinsky employs popular music styles including jazz, waltz and tango rhythms, marches, a pasodoble, ragtime and a Lutheran chorale. 

The most frequently encountered English translation of Ramuz’ French text is by Michael Flanders and Kitty Black. For this fiftieth anniversary performance, a contemporary English translation prepared by Jeremy Sams is used. The three actors convey their text with proficiency and clarity, making it straightforward to hear or follow the text in the booklet. The work is modestly scored; Stravinsky uses a septet of violin, double bass, clarinet, bassoon, cornet (or trumpet as used here), trombone and percussion, played here by Hallé orchestra principals. Sir Mark Elder obviously takes this Hallé project seriously and the playing of Stravinsky’s score is first class, stylish with no shortage of colour. 

I’ve seen and heard over a dozen performances of this work on both audio and video. It attracts adaptations, pared-down instrument numbers and types, concert suites, different numbers of performers, altered text etc. A number of recordings in English translation is available, featuring notable actors such as Glenda Jackson, Rudolf Nureyev, Harrison Birtwistle, Harriet Walter, Thomas Allen and Siobhan Redmond. There are versions where actors narrate all three roles, for example, Christopher Lee, Jeremy Irons, Dominique Horwitz and Roger Waters – who uses his own adaptation. 

My preference is to see the work performed, ideally with a dancer, which adds much to my engagement with the work. I find hearing audio recordings as per here worthwhile, too, but, beautifully produced, performed and recorded though it is, this Hallé/Elder account wouldn’t be my ideal. On balance, for a morality play, everything feels too sumptuous. The sound of the instruments comes across as rather plush as opposed to having a coarse and knotty character. Where is the earthy anguish and bitterness of this dispiriting wartime tale? Concerning the casting of the actors, overall, I want more differentiated voices for the roles. A casting that works best for me would be a woman as the narrator, a far deeper voice for the devil (Ian McKellen or John Tomlinson spring to mind) and the soldier would be a more nervy, careworn character. Overall, the closest recording to my ideal was recorded in 1988 at Abbey Road, London and features Ian McKellen as the narrator, Sting as the Soldier and Vanessa Redgrave as the Devil with the London Sinfonietta conducted by Kent Nagano on Pangea Records.

Michael Cookson

Previous review: Mike Parr (April 2023)

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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