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Royal Academy of Music Manson Ensemble & Oliver Knussen - Stravinsky: The Soldier's Tale - The Arts Desk

06 May 2017
The Arts Desk
Graham Rickson

Combining speech with music is so hard to get right, and I prefer the purely instrumental suite which Stravinsky extracted from The Soldier's Tale. But, as versions of the original go, this new one is a winner. It's conducted, brilliantly, by Oliver Knussen, leading a flawless student ensemble. Everything's so vibrant and clear, the pungent trombone and cornet worthy of special praise. And it was Knussen's original idea to cast Peter Maxwell Davies and Harrison Birtwistle as Devil and Soldier - to which Birtwistle responded "I'll do it if he does it." Maxwell Davies took some convincing, only agreeing to take part as his final illness worsened. Harriet Walter was already in situ as Narrator, the project surviving after Maxwell Davies's death by bringing in George Benjamin as substitute. He's excellent: the tiny Devil's Song has never sounded so sharp, his dry, waspish delivery a perfect foil for Birtwistle's flat-footed, very northern Soldier. The final scenes are electrifying, Knussen giving the two chorales the requisite weight before the Triumphal March of the Devil disintegrates in front of our ears. There's some terrific percussion from Jacob Brown.

Good couplings too, Knussen able to invest the most desiccated nuggets of late Stravinsky with abundant life. The Fanfare for a New Theatre still sounds startlingly modern, and we also get the Double Canon and Epitaphium, the latter's bell-like harp sounds nicely caught by Linn's engineers. Plus a pair of short pieces composed by Birtwistle and Maxwell Davies to mark Stravinsky's 85th birthday in 1967, and a further two more written in memoriam four years later. The pick of them is Birtwistle's miniscule Tombeau, barely two minutes but feeling so much longer - in a good way. Well annotated and beautifully recorded.

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Igor StravinskyIgor Stravinsky
Oliver KnussenOliver Knussen
Royal Academy of MusicRoyal Academy of Music
Stravinsky: The Soldier's TaleStravinsky: The Soldier's Tale