Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale is a curious piece. Written in the dying days of World War One, in 1918, whilst Stravinsky was in exile in Switzerland, it was initially planned to alleviate his precarious financial situation. Together with Charles Ferdinand Ramuz (1878–1947), with whom he had collaborated on Renard (1916), it was designed as a piece of folk art to be toured around Swiss villages by a travelling troupe of players, dancers and musicians. Its story of a soldier, who makes a Faustian pact with the Devil, was designed to be acted out with simple props, dance and the barest of musical means: just seven instruments.

© Clive Hicks-Jenkins
© Clive Hicks-Jenkins

It should be the most robust of pieces, yet even from the time of its first performance (to a society audience in Lausanne) it has proved the most elusive of Stravinsky’s works to bring off successfully. Ramuz was attempting to create a piece of simple folk art rooted in the ageless rural culture of his native Switzerland and its essence is difficult to capture in English, and is not helped by the doggerel of Michael Flanders’ rather dated translation. Although intensely memorable, the music is not first-division Stravinsky and does not gain from being spread out over an hour. But it remains remarkable for its invention of a chamber ensemble almost unprecedented in western music: violin, double bass, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone and percussion. Its sonorities come as a shock even today; goodness knows how it must have sounded to an audience 95 years ago.

All this by way of giving a welcome to the Mid Wales Chamber Orchestra’s performance (in association with Theatr Brycheiniog, Brecon), unveiled at the Hay Festival, that is due to tour in a double bill with a newly commissioned music theatre work by composer Mark Bowden at a future date. MWCO are relative newcomers on the scene, formed in 2010 by conductor James Slater and giving performances in Powys and the Welsh borders of large-scale chamber (rather than chamber orchestral) works. It’s a resource to be welcomed, particularly in mid-Wales, which has virtually no professional ensemble provision.

Their performance at Hay was given to a near capacity audience against the backdrop of a tempestuous storm that battered at the outside of the tent. It was perhaps for eventualities such as this that the players were (unwisely) amplified, playing havoc with their natural internal balance and tone quality. James Slater, though, drew a solid, workmanlike performance from a fine line-up of musicians.

However, the aspect of The Soldier’s Tale that has always excited academics and commentators is Stravinsky and Ramuz’s virtual invention of the genre of music theatre: a quality that MWCO have sought to recreate. Over the years it has been this aspect of the work that has proved most elusive. So full marks for collaboration with artist Clive Hicks-Jenkins on his semi-animated visuals that form (literally) a backdrop to the hour-long production. His gentle Chagal-esque images, in bright primary colours, against a black background, were perhaps the most striking aspect of the production and one looks forward to what he will do in the forthcoming collaboration with Mark Bowden.

The most problematic aspect of most production, though, tends to be that of the narrator, and that was the case here. Like Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf or Walton’s Façade, The Soldier’s Tale is often used as a vehicle for actors or celebrity personalities. Lisa Dwan’s performance might have charmed the audience, but her aggressive, high-energy, televisual approach was a thousand miles from the timelessness of Ramuz’s conception, the rawness of Stravinsky’s score or the wonderment of Clive Hicks-Jenkins’ visuals. A pity. But it was a brave attempt at a difficult piece and one looks forward to what MWCO does next.

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