Stravinsky was marooned in Switzerland by the First World War and prevented from returning home by the Russian Revolution in 1917. Cut off from his Russian ballet royalties, he set about composing a work for reduced forces that could tourThe resulting Soldier’s Tale for just seven players with actors and dancers had a successful premiere in Lausanne in 1918 but the tour was cancelled due to the flu pandemic, an extraordinary parallel as the UK enters another paralysing lockdown. The Scottish Chamber Orchestra had the foresight to record material before Christmas to launch its early spring season, this performance of The Soldier’s Tale as sparkling as the winter snow in the moonlight outside.

Matthew McVarish
© Scottish Chamber Orchestra

The story of a soldier selling his soul to the Devil in return for material gain is based on Alexander Afanasyev’s tale of The Runaway Soldier and the Devil, the soldier selling his violin in exchange for a book which promises untold wealth. The soldier is persuaded to go with the devil to teach him how to play, but three days becomes three years, and when the soldier returns home, everyone runs away from him, and his fiancée is now married to another man and has two children. The soldier becomes a successful travelling salesman and grows rich, but in another astonishing resonance to the current pandemic, it suddenly dawns on him that however wealthy, when you deprive people of the basic things that make them happy, they become miserable.

Seven well-distanced players conducted by Gordon Bragg occupied the starkly lit Queen’s Hall with narrator Matthew McVarish in a splendid red shirt, three-quarter length dark coat and sinister black leather gloves on a small platform towards the rear. The work is structured as a series musical numbers interspersed with narration, the sound recordists excellently balancing voice and players. The ensemble threw themselves into the opening march, a sparking jumble with violinist Siún Milne biting the strings with the heel end of her bow so vividly you could almost feel the soldier’s boots crunching on the road. Brass interjections, lively percussion from Louise Goodwin and Maximiliano Martín’s sinuous clarinet provided an unsettling backdrop to this modern parable.

Siún Milne
© Scottish Chamber Orchestra

McVarish, delivering Michael Flanders and Kitty Black’s version in a fine Scottish brogue, was mesmerising to watch, his initial innocence turning to intrigue on meeting the Devil in disguise and then utterly perplexed as his village disowns him by slamming their doors. A slight turn of the head here, a thickening of the accent for characters there, McVarish’s beguiling Scottish poetic cadences completely drew us into this tale.

Musically, there are several different strident marches, and the more reflective Pastorale with its mysterious bassoon and clarinet passages and Petit airs au bord du Ruisseau which showcased Milne’s dancing violin with Nikita Naumov’s insistent double bass pulse. As the story moved on to the healing of the Princess and the devil’s card game, the central musical core was the three dances, the tango, waltz and ragtime. On her lower strings, Milne’s violin embarked on a sensuous tango with Goodwin’s drums providing a sinister counterpoint before brightening into a whirling waltz with tangibly dangerous abandon before all joined into punchy ragtime, woodwind and brass ablaze. The ensemble work was kept bright and lively by Bragg... everything you needed to out-dance the devil. The chorale was full of strangeness as the soldier planned on leaving with the Princess to return to his mother – wonderful storytelling from McVarish as he eventually follows the devil away, his soul sold, while the ensemble danced exuberantly in celebration.

A powerful start to the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s spring season, excellently filmed and recorded, although I felt the violin seemed somewhat unnaturally stuck in the left channel. I loved the final drum beats which, instead of fading away as they do in some performances, rose to a dramatic crescendo.

This performance was reviewed from the Scottish CO's video stream