Taking the narrative of a Russian folk tale, Stravinsky conceived L’Histoire du soldat (The Soldier’s Tale) as a theatrical event to be performed by a small chamber orchestra, three actors and at least one dancer. It premiered in Lausanne in 1918 and until the last moment (energetically encouraged by the author of the literary text, Charles Ferdinand Ramuz) Stravinsky held out the tantalising prospect of performing at the premiere himself: not as conductor but as one of the actors, portraying the triumphant devil in the rhythmically intricate closing scene (le marche triomphale du diable).

© Iona Roberts

Fast forward 102 years and this sinister tale of a battle of wills between a simple soldier and the devil provided a pleasing teatime interlude on a cold and windy Sunday afternoon with the English Chamber Orchestra performing in a small Georgian-style drawing room at Beckenham Place Mansion. The visual side of the performance was regularly enhanced by featuring impactful drawings and paintings by Iona Roberts. 

The orchestral septet were socially distanced with violinist (Stephanie Gonley), bassist (Paul Sherman), trombonist (Michael Buchanan), trumpeter (Neil Brough), bassoonist (Paul Boyes) and clarinettist (Anthony Pike) arranged in a horseshoe around the largely unseen conductor (David Corkhill) with the percussionist (James Bower) stationed behind the woodwinds. Stravinsky originally scored the work for a cornet but this is now routinely replaced by the trumpet.

Traditionally, different actors portray the soldier, the devil and a narrator who mops up all the minor roles, and a dancer plays the non-speaking role of the princess. Here, all of the text was delivered by an excellent narrator, Raphael Corkhill, with an impressive range of voices, mostly spoken but occasionally sung, from the vernacular of Joseph, the soldier returning home on leave, to the elderly woman’s voice of the devil in one of his several disguises.    

On his way home, Joseph took a break and searching through his knapsack, found his lucky medallion, a photograph of his fiancée and hidden in a corner, his old fiddle, providing the cue for Gonley’s expressive interpretation of the Petit airs au bord du ruisseau (by the stream), joined by the persuasive melodies of bassoon and clarinet, which offered the faintest stirring of The Rite of Spring. It was also the cue for the devil to appear, disguised as a benign old gentleman, persuading the soldier to exchange his fiddle for a book that contained untold wealth. The bargain done, they adjourned for some celebratory libation.

Stephanie Gonley
© English Chamber Orchestra

When Joe eventually found his way home, no-one recognised him and his fiancée was married with two children. He realised that three years (not three days) have passed since his deal with the devil and that, without his old violin, he was nothing. The devil returned in the guise of the old woman and the soldier retrieved the violin, only to discover that he can no longer play it (although this occurs with a reprise of the violin melody from beside the stream). 

Joe left home with nothing (“where he’s heading no-one knows”) and to a reprise of the opening marching theme, he arrived at an inn to hear the king’s proclamation that the man who can raise his sick daughter from her bed will claim her hand in marriage. With nothing to lose, the soldier marched to the palace where he is met again by the devil – this time in the guise of a virtuoso violinist – and through a riddle (“the only way to win is to lose everything”) the soldier challenged the devil to a card game and on losing the final hand, the devil collapsed. 

This opened up the most joyful passages of music with diverse melodies twisting around a strong central theme, layering the sensual rhythms of a tango, the foot-tapping tempo of the waltz and the party-time essence of ragtime, as Joseph used music to hasten the urgent recovery of the sleeping princess. Having won her hand, the soldier serenaded the princess with a strong violin solo, joined by the clarinet, backed by the steady rhythm of the double bass.  Overconfident, as the music moved into an energetic and passionate cacophony that reached a harsh climax, the soldier ignored the moral of this tale (“No one can have it all”) and decided to cross the forbidden frontier to find his mother. The bride vanished and Stravinsky's final triumphal march of the devil featured a dramatic conversation between violin and percussion with Bower’s drumbeats drifting gently to their sad conclusion.

This was a thoroughly enjoyable performance of a unique theatrical work that integrates so many musical influences and styles, composed at a pivotal point in Stravinsky’s career; at which time he continued to forge innovative rhythmic structures while moving towards more traditional forms. This small orchestra achieved a strong holistic identity and the outstanding narration was the feather in this soldier’s cap.  

This performance was reviewed from the ECO's video stream.