Conceived at a time of hardship and enforced creativity, within the restrictions and fears of a new epidemic, Stravinsky’s 1918 music-drama The Soldier’s Tale has never been more topical.
You can expect this genre-defying chamber piece to crop up everywhere this year, not least because lean forces originally devised in response to the Spanish flu – just seven instrumentalists and a handful of actors – make it a fairly Covid-friendly choice for ensembles. Performances from the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and the Halle follow in the next few months, but it’s the Scottish Chamber Orchestra that kick it off.
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When a young soldier heading home on leave meets an old man on the road, he is persuaded to swap his violin for a book containing the secret to untold wealth and power. But making a deal with the Devil comes at a cost, as Joseph soon discovers.
Stravinsky’s original score calls for three actors and a dancer, but the SCO turn the work into a hypnotic one-hander. Framed in a semi-circle of musicians, actor Matthew McVarish is a coaxing, softly Scottish narrator, switching between roles with a change of coat or just a shift of timbre – now the Devil, wheedling and hissing, now Joseph and his beloved Princess. It’s a masterly performance, playing with the rhythm of the poetry of Michael Flanders’ and Kitty Black’s translation to give us spoken syncopation to echo Stravinsky’s own music.
The Soldier’s Tale is a miracle of musical concision and precision. Each instrument is a distinct voice: trombone drooping and sliding sardonically, adding a mock-military oom-pah to underpin the cornet’s officious fanfares and timpani blows, with bassoon and an ironic, jeering clarinet filling out the texture.
But it’s Siún Milne’s violin that dominates, leading us in Stravinsky’s breathless sequence of dances, including a dark, sneery tango, a vivacious ragtime and of course the Devil’s own “Danse du Diable”.
Conductor Gordon Bragg keeps enough rough folk energy to balance out the sleek sophistication of it all, propelling us on an exhilarating musical gallop down to hell.
Available to stream to 7 February (sco.org.uk)