thu 06/05/2021

The Soldier's Tale, Scottish Chamber Orchestra online review - top performers master a baggy mini-monster | reviews, news & interviews

The Soldier's Tale, Scottish Chamber Orchestra online review - top performers master a baggy mini-monster

The Soldier's Tale, Scottish Chamber Orchestra online review - top performers master a baggy mini-monster

Actor and violinist excel in this Stravinsky-Ramuz confection

Violinist Siún Milne and double-bassist Nikita Naumov, a joy to watch as well as hearAll images by Stuart Armit

Born in exigency at the end of the First World War and soon kiboshed by the Spanish flu, The Soldier’s Tale as originally conceived is a tricky hybrid to bring off. Not so the suite – Stravinsky’s mostly incidental-music numbers are unique and vivid from the off – but the whole story, based on a Russian folk tale about a simple man’s tricky dealings with Old Nick, is awkward, made impossibly complicated and preachy by the Swiss writer Charles Ferdinand Ramuz.

Born in exigency at the end of the First World War and soon kiboshed by the Spanish flu, The Soldier’s Tale as originally conceived is a tricky hybrid to bring off. Not so the suite – Stravinsky’s mostly incidental-music numbers are unique and vivid from the off – but the whole story, based on a Russian folk tale about a simple man’s tricky dealings with Old Nick, is awkward, made impossibly complicated and preachy by the Swiss writer Charles Ferdinand Ramuz. Huge kudos, then, to a vibrant translation (uncredited, alas) delivered by the Scottish actor Matthew McVarish, spreading himself anything but thinly across the spoken roles of narrator, soldier and devil in this film made last November.

His co-star in the shenanigans is the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s Siún Milne, who introduces the performance with splendid succinctness. She plays the violin wielded for good effect by the soldier, and for ultimate ill by the devil: nonchalant along the road, slinky-strange in the Tango our hero plays to raise an unhappy princess from her sickbed, and lethal in the final dance. Her partnership with star double-bass player Nikita Naumov is a joy to watch, and in the suite of dances for soldier and princess make sure we don’t miss the dancers usual in the presentation. Matthew McVarish in The Soldeir's TaleThese two and clarinettist Maximiliano Martín, called upon for some vivid klezmer sounds here, communicate through the body as well as through sound. Less so the other instrumentalists, but you need a lot of focus to play the cornet as well as Peter Franks. Conductor Gordon Bragg is unobtrusive, as well he might be given that the instrumental septettists rely upon each other for close cohesion in this tricky, rhythm-jumping score.

Not even McVarish (pictured above) can conceal a slump in the middle of Ramuz’s monologue-with-music: not another tramp along the road, you think, as the first stage of the adventures is succeeded ever so slowly by the second. And the moralising between the pseudo-Bach chorales as we reach the end is still intolerable, not to mention confused: is it a bad thing to want to go and see your old mum, who didn’t recognise you thanks to the devil’s work, and bring her back to live with you? I sometimes wonder if Afanasyev’s telling of the original tale, into which – as scholar Richard Taruskin has pointed out – the musical numbers fit perfectly, wouldn’t be more satisfactory. SCO Soldier's TaleYet McVarish has all the actor’s tricks at his disposal to differentiate between characters, aided by some nifty camerawork - excellent throughout - in Edinburgh's Queen's Hall, and he conjures props with empty air. I well remember a then-unknown David McVicar’s production, with students and graduates of what was the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, coming to London in 1991; but this does more with less. It’s probably the best rendering of the full farrago you’ll see, so set aside an hour and adjust to the leisureliness of the tale.

Comments

I'm pretty sure this is the Michael Flanders translation.

Thank you. They did tell me that, but it was clearly adapted to give a Scottish slant.

Add comment

newsletter

Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters