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Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
L’histoire du soldat (1918)
Renard (1915-22)
Gérard Carrat (Narrator), François Berthet (Soldier), François Simon (Devil)
Nicolas Chumachenco (violin)
Eric Tappy, Pierre-André Blazer (tenors), Philippe Hutenlocher (baritone), Jules Bastin (bass), Siegfried Schmidt (cimbalom)
Ensemble Instrumental/Charles Dutoit
Rec. Salle des Fêtes de Rennens, Lausanne, Switzerland, 1970 (L’histoire); Koeniz, Switzerland, 1972 (Renard) ADD
WARNER APEX 2564 61367-2 [73’25]

Warner’s continue their policy of splitting previous Ultima double packs and re-releasing well reviewed discs as super budget Apex singles. These particular performances are 1970s analogue, but sound tremendously idiomatic, with authentically French singers and actors and Swiss-born Dutoit getting playing of real bite, wit and character out of his band. Indeed, I notice that this Soldier’s Tale recording got Nick Morgan’s vote as the best full-score version in the catalogue on a recent BBC Radio 3 ‘Building a Library’. It’s easy to hear why, the claim for ‘authenticity’ extending even further to the fact that the world premiere under Ernest Ansermet took place in Lausanne, the venue for this performance.

The two works make an ideal pairing, both being conceived as ‘entertainments’ for vocal soloists and small chamber ensembles. Soldier’s Tale is probably more popular in its suite form, where eight of the purely instrumental items were extrapolated from the complete score to form a 20-minute concert piece. But, as Nick Morgan rightly pointed out, the listener gets so much more out of the complete score, especially in the grippingly dramatic rendition given here. I’ve always liked the Michael Flanders English version, superbly recorded by Naxos (and also recommended by Morgan), but there’s no doubt that to hear experienced French actors is altogether more satisfying, as it is in a later masterpiece, Oedipus Rex. The one-time Geneva theatre director Gérard Carrat delivers a mesmerisingly brilliant account of the Narrator, superbly partnered by his two colleagues, though it’s a shame to be airing the familiar criticism of lack of texts. Yes, one can let the sheer beauty of the French delivery wash over one, but it would be so much nicer to understand the subtleties of the text instead of just having a fairly broad understanding of what’s going on. There’s not even a cued synopsis to help, which is a real shame in a recording of this quality.

The dynamic young Dutoit’s contribution is equally enthralling. Here is playing of real precision and panache, easily the equal of any version I know, including Stravinsky and Craft. His pacing and control are exemplary, and he gets precisely what he wants. Though it’s invidious to single players out here, the important concertante violin playing of Nicholas Chumachenco is outstanding, cheeky, grating and lyrical in equal measures whenever the score demands it. Whether it’s in the stylistic ‘parody’ numbers (Ragtime, Waltz, Tango) or the bluff March, or the ‘Little Concert’, Chumachenco and his admirable colleagues are superb. A tiny amount of dialogue is missing, but I only know that because I was lucky enough to be following John Carewe’s excellent critical edition from Chester’s, which just proved how accurate and at the same time purely theatrical, this production is.

The Russian fairy tale about the sly fox and his animal companions, Renard, was described by the composer as a ‘burlesque to be sung and acted, for four male voices and fifteen instruments’, and makes virtually the ideal companion piece. Stylistically it sits comfortably between The Rite and Les Noces, sharing with them the same folkish melodic fragments, rhythmic complexities and primitive vocal chanting. It’s a short but crucial work in his output and is surprisingly under-recorded. Here the crucial concertante part is for the cimbalom, an instrument that fascinated, even obsessed, the composer during this period. Its unique sonority fits the sound world of this work to perfection, with the jangling yet resonant percussiveness underpinning the clever word play of the vocalists. It emerges as a dry little one-act nonsense opera, performed here with just the right balance of musicianship and knockabout fun.

The analogue recordings are both good, with all traces of pre-echo in the declamatory vocal passages just about eliminated. The acoustic has just the right amount of resonance and instruments emerge with excellent clarity. If you don’t have this in its Ultima format, this new super budget release is well worth considering, as long as you are aware of the familiar caveat about texts.

Tony Haywood


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