A work about a simple soldier selling his soul to the Devil where the leading musician is called Faust. How very droll Humphrey! But this is no ordinary L’Histoire du Soldat: it’s been recorded in three different versions – English, German and French! What is even more surprising is that the narrator and the Devil in all three versions are the same person: one Dominique Horwitz, of whom more anon.
The idea for the work came during WWI, with Stravinsky at a loose end, with his ballet royalties cut off because of the war and his then wife Katya in poor health. 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. They turned to a Russian tale of a soldier who goes AWOL and, Faust style, sells his soul to the Devil.
The orchestration is for seven instruments. Armed with a few examples of early jazz supplied in sheet music by Ernest Ansermet, Stravinsky was inspired 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. This was clearly an embryonic jazz influence. It’s not strikingly jazzy but is definitely a harbinger to all the bouncy, syncopated efforts of the next decade. It would also become rather arid on repeated hearing, I imagine (despite the artistry of Isabelle Faust and pianist Alexander Melnikov.)
The narration is more problematic: the English version is a collaborative effort from 1954 by Michael Flanders (yes, that Michael Flanders) and the South African playwright Kitty Black. The demotic tone captures the deliberate banality of the original rhymes – but then the whole point of the piece, both verbally and musically, is the intentional avoidance of anything that smacked of the highbrow. I’d already sampled the performance in Presto’s CD of the Week website, where they give a one-minute soupcon of each track. Even that quickly began to grate with me.
Horwitz’s whine reminded me of the sound of the speaker’s contrived accent in one of those scam phone calls which threaten you with imminent arrest unless you pay a supposedly overdue tax bill. It was diabolical in a way which clearly wasn’t intentional. It also often eclipses the music. Apparently, when these forces performed the piece at the Wigmore Hall, pre-Covid, he also danced, and the histrionics unbalanced the effect even more! I agree with several reviewers who felt that his sardonic delivery anticipated Brecht and Weill. One more thing: the action is not always clear. It would have been an idea to give a straight synopsis of the plot.
The other major work is the 1932 Duo Concertante, a first-rate masterpiece. The rhythmic exuberance of the opening section and the wonderful contrast there and throughout between the two instruments does make for repeated listening. The violin is often stately or ethereal or sombre, while the piano is generally light and bouncy, save for the slower sections.
The Duo, for all that it is so rarely heard, is actually one of the most free-spirited and purely inventive of all his neo-classical works but suffused with a haunting poetry. Here, Faust and Melnikov are ravishing in a work which is fully worthy of their talents. Although Stravinsky’s own description of it is a little wide of the mark when he compares it to Virgil’s Eclogues. Having studied Sixth Form Latin, I can tell you that, exquisite as it is, there’s little Dionysian about the Dithyramb movement here.
Work: The Soldier’s Tale and other chamber works
Performers: Isabelle Faust, Alexander Melnikov, Dominic Horwitz
Label: Harmonia Mundi HMM992671