Imagine, if you will, a one man stage show, with one of the nation’s foremost and best loved actors playing all the parts in a somewhat Faustian fairy tale, with a crack team of musicians playing incidental music by one of the last century’s great composers. You might think that this would comfortably sell out a fair sized London theatre.
It didn’t quite work out that way, because Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale was not billed as a piece of theatre but as a classical concert. Being a relatively obscure piece, the Barbican Hall was a long way off full, in spite of the star pairing of Simon Callow as the narrator and Valery Gergiev conducting. Which was a shame, because it was an outstanding performance of an exceptional work.
The Soldier’s Tale (“L’Histoire du Soldat” in its original French) was written in 1918 in the safety of neutral Switzerland. In the aftermath of World War I, the orchestral forces available to Stravinsky for works like The Rite of Spring simply weren’t available, so the orchestra is pared down to just seven musicians: trumpet, trombone, clarinet, bassoon, violin, double bass and drum kit. If there were some sort of prize for the maximum number of musical styles and textures crammed into the minimum number of instruments, this work would surely win it: Stravinsky manages tango, waltz, romanza, military march, tinges of jazz and more folk dance styles than I have any chance of naming, every one filled with verve and relish.
The fairy tale itself is straightforward enough, but engagingly told: the Soldier is journeying home on leave when he meets the Devil in various disguises: the Devil persuades him to exchange his violin for a book of stock market tips (it could have been written yesterday). The Soldier gains boundless riches but soon realises that they are worthless and works out the identity of the stranger who provided him with the book. A series of events ensues in which the Soldier manages to get the better of the Devil temporarily and to wake and marry the sleeping Princess, but the Devil gets the last laugh.
The original calls for one dancer (the Princess) and three actors (the Soldier, the Devil and a narrator who plays everyone else); in this performance, Callow did everything (except dance). He turned in a performance that was both virtuosic and rumbustious, switching accents at alarming speed and bringing every part to life. Under Gergiev’s watchful eye and delicate baton, the LSO’s musicians gave a wonderful account of the score. There are many individual highlights that I could pick out, from the jaunty good cheer of the opening soldier’s march, to the rustic knees-up of the Soldier’s fiddle-playing to the Princess’s exotic tango - into which the Soldier’s march insinuates itself, in a characteristic Stravinsky display of wit and cleverness at mixing rhythms. The whole work takes about an hour, and it sparkled throughout.
Before the interval, a somewhat larger LSO ensemble played Stravinsky’s burlesque Renard, together with four young Russian singers. Renard was written two years earlier; it’s also based on folk tales (in this case, the characters are the Fox, the Cock, the Cat and the Goat); it’s much shorter (about 20 minutes) and completely madcap. It was played and sung with equal gusto, although this was a more problematic piece. There was some lovely singing, particularly from tenor Dmitry Voropaev, but there were passages where the two bass voices were inaudible below the instrumental music. My biggest problem was that I don’t speak Russian and there were no surtitles, so I found it impossible to follow what was happening. The LSO did provide a full libretto in the programme notes, but since the different singers all sing a bit of each part and it was too dark to read quickly, I got totally lost. In any case, the music for Renard is a very fragmented affair: there are many interesting individual phrases and some interesting instrumentation, particularly in the major part played by the cimbalom, but on a first listening, it’s difficult to follow a musical thread.
But that shouldn’t take away from the fact that the second half was a huge treat. I just found it disappointing that the hall was so empty: The Soldier’s Tale is a work that should have had very broad appeal well beyond the usual classical music audience, and it was performed memorably: last night’s audience left the Barbican thoroughly entertained.
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