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Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Histoire du soldat
Didier Sandre (The Narrator)
Denis Podalydès (The Soldier)
Michel Vuillermoz (The Devil)
Olivier Charlier (violin), Bernard Cazauran (double-bass), Philippe Berrod (clarinet), Giorgio Mandolesi (bassoon), Bruno Tomba (trumpet), Guillaume Cottet-Dumoulin (trombone), Eric Sammut (percussion)
Jean-Christophe Gayot (conductor)
Recording details not provided
HARMONIA MUNDI HMM902354 [58:08]

A variety of decisions confronts anyone who wants a recording of A Soldier’s Tale, a play by Charles Ferdinand Ramuz with music by Stravinsky, which was first performed in Lausanne under Ernest Ansermet almost exactly 100 years ago (28th September 1918). You might prefer to hear most of the music without the spoken dialogue, in which case you could avail yourself of the Suite Stravinsky made for performance in London as early as 1920. And you would be spoilt for choice: the sequence of eleven short pieces lasting around twenty-five minutes is available in authoritative versions by Ansermet and the composer himself, as well as in many more recent performances by such diverse conductors as Pierre Boulez and Roger Norrington. Then, even if you do decide you want the full work, what language should it be in? There is an excellent English translation by Michael Flanders and Kitty Black, which itself has been recorded several times. A starry Boston version from 1972, now on Eloquence, features no less than John Gielgud, Tom Courtenay and Ron Moody; and Naxos alone offers two more than adequate later recordings, one with English actors (under Nicholas Ward) and one with American ones (under JoAnn Falletta). Moreover my colleague Roy Westbrook was favourably impressed by a 2015 LSO Live version which assigned all three speaking parts to the same actor, Malcolm Sinclair (review).

If, though, you take the reasonable view that only a complete version in the original French will do, then this new – if bizarrely undated – performance from Harmonia Mundi might well fit the bill. The fast-moving play relates the story of a soldier, Joseph, who enters into a pact with the Devil by selling him his fiddle in exchange for considerable – if of course temporary – material and amatory rewards. It is said to be based on a Russian folk tale, but for Western European audiences the most obvious cognate is, for certain, the Faust legend. Stravinsky’s music for it is as inventive and eclectic as one might expect, with influences ranging from klezmer and gypsy music to ragtime and dance forms such as the tango, waltz and pasodoble. As such, the work as a whole makes considerable demands both on its actors and its musicians.

Both words and music are here in safe, experienced hands. The three actors from the Comédie Française all give strongly characterized performances, vivid without being unduly stagey. One might perhaps single out Michel Vuillermoz’s splendidly wheedling Devil, but then of course the latter always has the best lines, and it’s a gift of a part to play. The demanding concertante part for solo violin is given a fizzing performance by Olivier Charlier, and he is very well supported by the six other players, all principals from the Orchestre de Paris. The clarinettist and trumpeter struck me as particularly fine. Helped no doubt by the presence of a conductor (not always a given in recorded performances), the ensemble as a whole plays with the vitality and rhythmic crispness needed for this work, but also shows itself capable of delivering more melancholy moods when required (for example in the early ‘Pastorale’ and the much later ‘Grand Choral’). The recording is of high quality, both clear and full-toned.

The CD isn’t especially full – not that this is the easiest piece to find a coupling for (the most appropriate one might perhaps be Renard, Stravinsky’s roughly contemporary collaboration with Ramuz, which did indeed appear alongside the Histoire on an analogue CD led by Charles Dutoit); but other than that, I have only two moans. One is that the actors have on occasion been asked to read some of Ramuz’s stage directions over Stravinsky’s music – not for lengthy periods, to be sure, but enough to create an annoying distraction, and one which one can be sure neither dramatist nor composer intended. This device would no doubt be helpful and worthwhile in a radio production, but not when, as here, one can follow proceedings in French or English (the Flanders/Black translation) in a handsomely illustrated booklet. A booklet which, however, measures more than 18 cm by 13 cm, and which as such has to be accommodated in a DVD-size box, rather than one of the dimensions conventionally used for CDs. Now I know I can be a bit fussy, even obsessive about this kind of thing, but: won’t people want to store this CD alongside their other CDs, and not with their DVDs? I know I do.

Such moans aside, this issue has a good deal going for it. I wouldn’t say it now leads the field, even for French-language versions of the full Histoire du Soldat: the 1962 Markevitch version with Jean Cocteau and (yes) Peter Ustinov remains a classic of its kind, as does a version on Naïve featuring Schlomo Mintz and Depardieu père et fils, Gérard and the ill-fated Guillaume. This Harmonia Mundi release is also an estimable one, though: it merits listening to and will undoubtedly give pleasure.

Nigel Harris


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