Originally conceived for touring on a small budget, The Soldier’s Tale is a theatrical work “to be read, played and danced”, based on the Russian folk story of a soldier who trades his violin with the devil for the promise of unparalleled economic gain. This cautionary tale, with its Faustian echoes, is brought to life by a septet of LSO musicians and the narration of veteran British actor Malcolm Sinclair.

Producer: James Mallinson
Engineering, editing, mixing & mastering: Jonathan Stokes & Neil Hutchinson for Classic Sound Ltd
Recorded: Live in DSD 128fs on 31 October 2015 at the Jerwood Hall, LSO St Luke’s, London

Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale is quite unlike the grandiose ballet scores – The Rite of Spring, Petrushka, The Firebird – for which he had become famous during the preceding decade. This new work was intended for a small group of musicians, largely as a result of the economic stringencies imposed in post-First World War Europe. Yet, necessity was indeed the mother of invention here, and Stravinsky was certainly inspired to be at his most inventive and evocative in the creation of this work.

Stravinsky collaborated with the Swiss writer and poet Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz, who had earlier helped prepare the French libretto for his opera-ballet Renard. The main impetus for the project came from Ramuz – the intention being to put on lucrative performances of the work on a shoe-string in order to fix their impecunious state. The tale itself, sourced from a Russian folk tale – “The Deserter and the Devil” – tells of a soldier, returning home on leave, being waylaid by a devil who persuades him to trade his violin for a magic book, which promises to provide material wealth.

The strikingly earthy music Stravinsky created for the Soldier’s violin playing was inspired by the style of the gypsy fiddlers, traditionally used by Austro-Hungarian recruiting parties to entice young men to join the army. Equally as appropriately, Stravinsky incorporates the sound of the cornet/trumpet, trombone and drums to accompany several marches throughout the work. Each higher-sounding instrument in the ensemble is paired with a lower-sounding companion, to provide balance: thus, the violin partners the double bass; the clarinet has the bassoon; and the trumpet is matched to the trombone. A percussionist completes the ensemble, which is not dissimilar in composition to a jazz-style dance band. However, with all the expenses of these musicians (including auditioning and rehearsing, and scenery and costumes for the actors), Stravinsky and Ramuz had to abandon their original idea of small-scale presentation, instead needing to sell large numbers of seats at high prices to recover their costs. The initial premiere of a proposed touring run for the work was a huge success, but the outbreak of Spanish influenza unfortunately put an end to the duo’s grand plans.

Despite a somewhat discouraging start, however, this unusual work has stood the test of time, and is here given a spectacular performance by Roman Simovic, Malcolm Sinclair, and the LSO Chamber Ensemble. Recorded in the Jerwood Hall of the LSO’s educational hub, LSO St Luke’s, as part of the Barbican Centre’s 2015 “Sound Unbound” festival, the players revelled in the opportunity to perform this work without a conductor, instead following Roman’s direction from the violin, working with each other in a true chamber performance.

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