Royal Academy of Music Manson Ensemble & Oliver Knussen - Stravinsky: The Soldier's Tale - BBC Music Magazine
The latest fruit of Linn Records's collaboration with London's Royal Academy of Music (RAM) is an exceptionally rewarding assembly of 20th-century chamber-music gems by the Manson Ensemble, the RAM's splendidly accomplished student band devoted to contemporary music. Under Oliver Knussen, current RAM Richard Rodney Bennett Professor of Music, a Stravinsky memorial has been designed to set The Soldier's Tale, its largest work, amid a selection of tiny late-Stravinsky pieces interspersed with no less tiny Stravinsky tributes from Harrison Birtwistle and Peter Maxwell Davies. The original plan was that Birtwistle, as the Soldier, and Harriet Walter's Narrator should be joined in the recording studio by Maxwell Davies as the Devil; but the latter's death resulted in another leading British composer, George Benjamin, taking over as the Devil. (The pairing of notable composers in this work is a hallowed US tradition.) For anyone wanting an English language account of this key Stravinsky masterpiece — almost a century old and bulking ever larger among his greatest achievements for its mighty scale and subject matter drawn out of minimal means — this set has much to offer. It's recorded in a way to convey to the maximum both the poetic detail and the expert pacing of Knussen's finely-pointed reading, and to give full rein to Dame Harriet's wonderfully free-spirited yet exact Narrator. Others may enjoy Birtwistle's flat-toned Soldier and Benjamin's slightly schoolboyish Devil more than I do (memories being hard to efface of Peter Ustinov's irresistibly funny Devil in the classic Igor Markevitc recording, and of Depardieu son and father as Soldier and Devil in Shlomo Mintz's). As a whole, however, the disc merits a strong recommendation.