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

Masterminded by conductor Oliver Knussen and producer Jonathan Freeman-Attwood, this recording of Stravinsky's The Soldier's Tale is the latest in a fruitful collaboration between the Linn label and the Royal Academy of Music (of which Freeman-Attwood is Principal). The inspired cast was originally to have included Sir Peter Maxwell Davies in the role of the Devil, but his deteriorating health at the time of the sessions sadly prevented his participation. However the composer George Benjamin gamely stepped up to fill the breach, and so we have his sly, suave, condescending Devil pitted against Sir Harrison Birtwistle, no less, as a magnificently laconic, richly Lancastrian Soldier. Their joint participation alone is enough to generate a high profile for the disc, but most of the spoken-word sections in this full version of the score devolve to the Narrator. Linn have again scored trumps by engaging of Dame Harriet Walter, who had already taken all three speaking roles in concert. She is consistently involving and involved, helped by an ideal balance even in the louder passages. The English translation of C.F. Ramuz's French text by Michael Flanders and Kitty Black remains true to the spirit of the original while avoiding some of its arch stylisation, so this starry performance of the Tale can thus be enjoyed both as straightforward literal narrative and as a Faustian fable.

The RAM's excellent contemporary music group, the Manson Ensemble shine brilliantly in their recording debut, bringing out all the spikiness and wit of Stravinsky's score. They seem to revel in the physicality of the dance movements (including the celebrated Tango, Waltz and Ragtime), while the moments of reflection are played with the greatest sensitivity and careful dynamic control. Knussen keeps rhythms buoyant, and special mention must be made of Eleanor Corr's supremely agile violin playing, as well as Christopher Hart on cornet and Jacob Brown, wonderfully alert on the varied percussion. Rarely has Stravinsky's septet scoring sounded so alive, responsive and daring as this: add in the celebrity cast and Linn have a sure-fire winner.

If that isn't enough to whet your appetite, the Tale is imaginatively framed by miniatures from Stravinsky, Davies and Birtwistle. Acting as a prelude is a group of celebratory pieces by or for Stravinsky: his brief, arresting Fanfare for a New Theatre for two trumpets (1964); Knussen's marvellously delicate arrangement of Davies's Canon ad honorem Igor Stravinsky of 1967; and Birtwistle's solemn but subtly complex Chorale from a Toy Shop, likewise composed for Stravinsky's eighty-fifth birthday and now updated by Birtwistle in versions for winds and strings.

After the Tale, as it were reflecting on the Soldier's ultimate demise, are four treasurable commemorative miniatures, once again by or for Stravinsky. His bleak Double Canon in memory of Raoul Dufy is followed by his Epitaphium for Prince Max Egon zu Fürstenberg, exquisite modernist gems both composed in 1959. Finally, a pair of works written for the Stravinsky memorial issue of Tempo magazine in 1971: Birtwistle's melancholic Tombeau - in memoriam Igor Stravinsky and Davies's enigmatic Canon in memoriam Igor Stravinsky, in which serial technique melds with plainsong-like fragments. All are superbly shaped and shaded by Knussen and the Manson Ensemble musicians, acting as a double tribute to both Stravinsky and Davies.

The programme of the disc as a whole is hugely satisfying, engagingly presented and performed. As the centenary of The Soldier's Tale approaches, this new account goes straight to the top of the pile for those wanting the complete work in English, for the sheer quality of both performance and couplings, a dazzling account of a modern classic.

24 March 2017