STRAVINSKY Histoire du soldat (Gayot)
Hard on the heels of LSO Live’s austere English-language Soldier’s Tale comes this version in the original French from Harmonia Mundi. Both have been released to coincide with the centenary of the premiere, and the differences between them are far greater than those of language. Where LSO Live presents the work as a chamber piece, with a single actor (Malcolm Sinclair) and the players directed from the leader’s chair by Roman Simovic, Harmonia Mundi offers us something altogether more theatrical: the cast comes from the Comédie-Française; Olivier Charlier is the starry violinist; and the ‘Ensemble Instrumental’, its members drawn from the Orchestre de Paris, is directed by Jean-Christophe Gayot, better known, perhaps, as an oboist than as a conductor.
As one might expect, it’s superbly acted, though the use of three speakers also throws into relief the stature of Sinclair’s achievement in tackling the work on his own. Didier Sandre is the worldly wise Narrator, observing and participating in the tale he is telling with bitter irony. Michel Vuillermoz makes a seductive, insidious Devil, though the great performance comes from Denis Podalydès’s beautifully realised Soldier, touching, naive and prone to both genuine sorrow and self-pity when his schemes come awry. The text has been expanded to include paraphrases of the stage directions, which is fair enough since the narrative can blur without them. They’re occasionally spoken, however, over music that Stravinsky intended to stand alone, and they get in the way when Sandre describes the Princess rising from her bed over the first of the dances to which the Soldier wakes her.
Where Simovic and Sinclair steer the work towards the sombre parables of Brechtian theatre, Gayot, elegant and witty, gives us something closer to cabaret. The playing is dexterous, svelte, at times flamboyant. Bruno Tomba, in particular, dazzles with his cornet solos in the ‘Marche royale’ and Charlier can be utterly beguiling in an interpretation that treats the violinist more as concertante soloist than ensemble player. Stravinsky, of course, intended the work to be conducted, but a successful chamber performance can yield dividends in terms of focus and concentration, and Simovic, whose players lose nothing in comparison to their Parisian counterparts in terms of virtuosity, has the more finely integrated ensemble. Among French-language versions, Shlomo Mintz’s performance – also directed from the leader’s chair and comparably sharp in it focus and bite – is still marginally to be preferred to this new recording, enjoyable though it is.