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

The Soldier's Tale had a troubled wartime genesis from which emerged music of bite and swagger and a new kind of smallscale musical theatre. The economy of Stravinsky's writing remains astonishing, but his greatest innovation is the permanently raised eyebrow which ensures that his material, a collision of Russian folklore and popular dance, continues to sound modern. That said, even the starriest of its complete recordings have tended not to linger long in the lists. Many listeners remain allergic to narration spoken over music and prefer the instrumental suite which Stravinsky himself taped for the last time in 1961. By approving later sessions at which linking material was set down, he also made it possible for Sony Classical to fabricate a posthumous complete account, played as a one-man show by Jeremy Irons. In 1962 conductor/ composer Igor Markevitch attracted an allstar cast to Vevey, including the elderly Jean Cocteau as Narrator and Peter Ustinov as the Devil, for a version in CF Ramuz' s original French, albeit tweaked to include a role for the previously mute Princess and some sound effects (Philips, 9/76). In the 1980s Kent Nagano and the London Sinfonietta deployed Ian McKellen, Vanessa Redgrave (on outrageous, fiendish form) and Sting in the English translation by Michael Flanders and Kitty Black (Pangea, 4/89).

The present disc makes broadly similar presentational decisions although Harriet Walter takes on rather more narrating than McKellen, including passages allocated to the Soldier in alternative editions less faithful to the studied anti-realism of Ramuz's original concept. Textually speaking, we are pitched into the final Triumphal March of the Devil without having the downbeat conclusion spelled out as it is on the recent American-voiced rival from Jo Ann Falletta (Naxos, 5/16). That option makes The Soldier's Tale feel like a parable on the subject of greed for the age of Trump. The present team would seem committed to the mysterious timelessness of the entertainment and its abstractly progressive nature. The novel idea was to cast the surviving icons of Mancunian modernism in supporting roles. Sadly Peter Maxwell Davies was too ill to take part but George Benjamin stepped in as an aptly insinuating, youthful-sounding Old Nick. Harrison Birtwistle, determinedly Lancastrian, is a more reticent, deadpan Soldier.

The complementary, commemorative shorter pieces, including two Birtwistle items written expressly for the recording, are as exquisitely turned as might be expected from this source. They are almost all designedly cool. Not that there's any lack of joie de vivre in the main work. No complaints about the intimate, vivid sound, nor the entertaining producer's note from Jonathan Freeman-Attwood. The fullcolour booklet is nicely illustrated. A pity it does not print the full text as this may differ from what you're used to. Anyone who knows Knussen's magical disc of seemingly intractable late Stravinsky (DG, 10/95) or his unbeatable Fairy's Kiss (DG, 11/97) will want this one too.

Gramophone
01 March 2017