What exactly is The Soldier’s Tale? The score says “To be read, played, and danced” and ‘playing’ refers both to acting and to playing music. There are just seven instrumentalists, high and low instruments from each section, thus violin and double bass, clarinet and bassoon, cornet and trombone. There is also percussion to represent the Devil, the violin being the soul of the soldier, for Ramuz’s play retells the Faust legend. So a play with incidental music, except that there is nothing ‘incidental ‘about Stravinsky’s score, which is central to the experience. The Hallé’s presentation was filmed, partly outdoors in Mancunian locations, partly indoors in an acting space without a set, alongside the musicians with whom the actors occasionally interacted. Whatever the genre, this interpretation by co-directors Annabel Arden and Femi Elufowoju Jr was intelligently conceived and brilliantly executed.

Sir Mark Elder conducts The Hallé
© The Hallé

The “dusty track” of the opening couplet was a towpath, one of several evocative watery locations, along which trudged the soldier played by Martins Imhangbe, who was watchable and plausible as the squaddie who can’t smell sulphur when it is right under his nose. His demonic predator was Mark Lockyer, his acting and dancing comic yet menacing, but without any moustache twirling. He also had the versatility to appear in different guises, yet remain the same character. The fine cast was completed by the buttonholing narration of Richard Katz, sometimes apart and chorus-like, sometimes closer to the action.

Martins Imhangbe, Faith Prendergast and Mark Lockyer in The Soldier's Tale
© The Hallé

As the Princess Faith Prendergast danced and acted delightfully, once she had emerged from a double bass case in her pyjamas. Her sequence of Tango-Waltz-Ragtime featured a neat jump cut allowing an instant switch from night attire to night-out attire, cocktail dress and feather boa, very ‘Igor and Coco’. This team played off each other like the travelling troupe intended for the piece in 1918 – but prevented by the flu pandemic.

Sir Mark Elder
© The Hallé

Sir Mark Elder conducted with great feeling for the ‘neo-jazz’ idiom, and the players responded both with the metrical precision required, and the lyrical feeling which pervades the Pastorale of Scene 2, where the clarinet of Sergio Castelló López and bassoon of Emily Hultmark combined sweetly. Peter Liang was excellent both as leader and violin soloist, whether seated or standing to help heal the sick Princess, whose dance weaved her at one point among the musicians. Their only weakness was looking uncomfortable in the party hat crowns they wore for the soldier’s visit to the King. Finally only the percussion is left playing, showing the triumph of Lucifer – who grinned over his shoulder at us from the conductor’s podium, a final coup to show us who was in charge all along. 

This performance was reviewed from The Hallé's video stream