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Igor STRAVINSKY (1882–1971)
The Soldier’s Tale (1918) [55:12]
Duo Concertant (1932) [16:30]
Élégie for solo violin (1944) [5:15]
Isabelle Faust (violin) Dominique Horwitz (narrator) Lorenzo Coppola (clarinets) Javier Zafra (bassoon) Reinhold Friedrich (cornets) Jörgen van Rijen (trombone) Wies de Boevé (double bass) Raymond Curfs (percussion); Alexander Melnikov (piano) (Duo Concertant)
rec. December 2019, April and July 2020, Teldex Studio, Berlin
Version in English; also available in a French version HMM902671] 
Reviewed as a digital download from a press preview
HARMONIA MUNDI HMM992671 [76:57] 

The record business has always had problems with that most strange and stubbornly persistent of genres – the hybrid of spoken word and music. In a one-off performance, the spoken word element is relatively trouble free, but on disc does anyone really want to listen to such text more than once or twice, however good the words or the actor? Yet the obvious solution, a suite of the musical element, robs the music of its dramatic context. Few works present this dilemma quite as powerfully as The Soldier’s Tale. Not only does it contain lots of Stravinsky’s best music, the music is decidedly theatrical in nature. The issue is insoluble and it is at the heart of this issue. A bigger concern for this particular release is the realisation of the spoken word part. To put it politely, I suspect the French actor, Dominique Horwitz will be somewhat like marmite to a lot of listeners. Geoff Brown, reviewing this recording in the Times clearly loathed him. My personal reaction was much more positive. His somewhat over the top approach seems to suit the bold primary colours of the music making.

As for that music making, I have nothing but praise. In almost every conceivable way this version goes to the top of the pile. The recorded sound is vivid and full bodied, close enough to be impactful but not so much as to lose richness. Faust’s playing, which is the thread that unites the three works recorded here, is remarkable even by her own exalted standards. Having not just a bona fide virtuoso but probably the greatest living violinist play the solo part of A Soldier’s Tale takes this performance to another level compared to many fine rival versions.

Faust’s ‘partners in crime’ are distinguished not just by their playing abilities but also by the fact that this is a period instrument band. The instruments used are lovingly described in the accompanying booklet. This is no mere fad; the noises they make are a constant source of surprise and pleasure. There is almost a paradox in the way they both blend together so immaculately and yet have utterly distinct personalities. The same paradox applied to the woodwind of the old Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. The two stars are the trombone and the cornet: the latter has an irresistible tartness when playing loud but yielding mellowness in more lyrical music. The former has real edge without blaring loudness. Listening to these lovely instruments I kept thinking that not all technological progress is a good thing. But it takes musicians to bring these lovely instruments to life and what musicians these are! Theirs is the art of treasuring every detail but without distorting the overall flow of the music. More than anything else they display that most essential quality in Stravinsky’s music – energy. This is music making to tap your toes to.

Stravinsky wrote The Soldier’s Tale in France toward the end of the First World War and after the October revolution in Russia had made an already precarious financial situation even worse. The idea was for a theatrical troupe with a slimmed down band providing the music. I suspect Stravinsky was already heading toward leaner textures anyway, but clearly necessity was the mother of invention. It is hard to underestimate just how good the music Stravinsky provided is. Highly influential too since, in one way or another, just about every piece of music written for small ensemble ever since had some relation to it. It is also a miracle of economy. Stravinsky says things in a few minutes that others take half an hour to manage. Contrary to appearances that this is just incidental music to a piece of narration, Stravinsky mines real depths and is in complete communion with the strange depths of this Russian folk tale.

Faust and colleagues are in tune with these depths. The recording begins with a small work whose existence I have never previously suspected – the Élégie of 1944 for solo violin. I was completely bowled over by the hushed intensity of Faust’s delivery, full of stoic resignation in the face of great pain. This is not a filler but a piece that announces the heart of this album.

This sense of there being more to things than meets the eye continues in the Duo Concertant. I had always viewed this as very minor Stravinsky, yet Faust and her partner, the always illuminating Melnikov, prove me a fool for thinking this. Apart from the typically Stravinskian fertility of invention they find in the earlier movements, they also produce a deeply affecting cry of pain in the concluding Dithyrambe that caught me by surprise. The same can be said of the plaintive music on the clarinet that follows the soldier’s realisation that, on returning to his village, nobody knows him because the devil has tricked him into staying away too long. In its delicate, precise way this is music that speaks of the alienating effect of the modern world on the human spirit.

Money troubles, albeit in less pressing form, lie behind the writing of the Duo Concertant. Previously unenthusiastic about the sound of strings with piano, though partly inspired by the playing of Samuel Dushkin, Stravinsky mainly saw the work as a means of increasing interest in his music through chamber concerts. Stravinsky had the happy knack of producing works of genius even when what prompted their composition was simple expediency. He also claimed inspiration from Virgil’s Georgics, which probably explains the greater classical strictures within which the music exists. The Dithyrambe reflects a different kind of classical influence – of the tragic intensity found in Oedipus Rex of five years earlier.

This combination of the restrained with the wild, of the jocular with the profound, might be said to be the theme of this collection and it captures a side of Stravinsky’s musical personality in a seductive and persuasive way. If you have ever thought of The Soldier’s Tale as an agreeable but minor work (as I did) this performance will be a real eye opener. Somehow it convinced me to think of it alongside even the big beasts like Le Sacre du Printemps or Petrushka.

Whilst this recording cannot solve the impossible and come up with a genuinely satisfying way of presenting spoken word and music on disc, it amply compensates the listener with vibrant performances that beguile and charm and move in the most entertaining manner imaginable.

David McDade

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