Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale at the Wigmore Hall review ***

Isabelle Faust (violin), Wies de Boevé (double bass), Lorenzo Coppola (clarinet), Javier Zafra (bassoon), Reinhold Friedrich (trumpet), Jörgen van Rijen (trombone), Raymond Curfs (drums), Dominique Horwitz (narrator)

Wigmore Hall, 23rd December 2019

  • Bartok – Solo Violin Sonata BB124
  • Stravinsky – The Soldier’s Tale

Curious confection this. Cut off from Russian royalties on the ballets, Stravinsky was short of a few bob whilst living in Switzerland during WWI, especially with first wife Katya poorly, so he teamed up with the similarly impecunious writer Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz to create L’Histoire du Soldat, a small scale music-theatrical work, to be “read, played and danced” which would be cheap to stage and could be toured anywhere. The boys turned to a Russian tale of a soldier who goes AWOL and, Faust style, sells his soul to the devil. Plenty of contemporary resonance, and a suitable format, for the gruelling post war years.

IS had yet to hear a note of the jazz music emerging from the US but, armed with a few sheets of music brought to him by Ernst Ansermet, he resolved to incorporate the new rhythmic style into the score and to reflect its sound in his choice of instrumentation with a combination of high and low pitches from each family: violin and double bass, clarinet and bassoon, trumpet and trombone as well as a wide range of percussion. It’s not that jazzy but is definitely a precursor to all the bouncy, syncopated grooves that IS was to serve up in the next decade. It doesn’t do too much by way of variation however, reprising a few key themes, and, this being my first sustained listen, is a bit same-y, even with the shifts in time signatures.

And the spoken parts, especially here where there was no dancer to distract, tend to dominate. Which gave a lot of leeway to Dominique Horwitz, who narrated, as well as taking on the roles of soldier and devil. Now M. Horwitz is apparently a bit of an expert when it comes to this piece, as well as in the likes of Brecht, Weill and Brel. And his day job as actor means he throws himself into the character of the soldier, marching and jogging on the spot, brooding over his keepsakes, rescuing a princess and having run-ins with Beelzebub in his various guises. Whilst the text here was in English and M. Horwitz can cary a speech I wish I had actually had the story in front of me as I didn’t really find a way into it. And maybe M. Horowitz could have toned down the funny voices.

Couldn’t fault the musician’s performances though. This, after all, was a crack team led by the amazing Isabelle Faust, as she showed again in her interpretation of Bela Bartok’s 1944 solo violin sonata. Written in the year before he died, ill and short of money, to a commission by Yehudi Menuhin, it isn’t, as you might have guessed, the easiest piece in the solo violin repertoire. Bartok and Menuhin took a bit of time to hit it off and YM was initially perturbed by the difficulty of the score, notably some fearsome double-stopping, but with familiarity and the implacability of BB when it came to any changes, eventually brought him round.

It kicks off with a Chaconne in homage to Bach’s writing fo solo violin, though here mediated through the prism of C20 modernism and BB’s beloved Hungarian folk tunes. The second movement is a thrillingly tricky fugue, with complex counterpoint, angular, jagged, with extreme dynamics, like the vey best of Bartok’s writing. The slow movement in contrast is serene, easy on the ear compared to what has gone before, before the rush of the Presto finale. Like most Bartok it takes a bit of listening too, and getting into the listening zone (when nothing else matters but the music) takes a bit longer than for my other favourite B’s, Bach, Beethoven and Britten. And just maybe it took Isabelle Faust just a little bit longer than normal to find her groove.

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