Nicola Benedetti is ‘At Home’ in Edinburgh headlining Stravinsky’s gripping The Soldier’s Tale

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Edinburgh International Festival 2021 [14] – Stravinsky, The Soldier’s Tale (English translation by Michael Flanders and Kitty Black): Filmed (directed by Matt Parkin) at Edinburgh Academy Junior School on 21.8.2021 and streamed from 27.8.2021. (JPr)

The Soldier’s Tale with Anthony Flaum (Soldier, right)

Sir Thomas Allen (Narrator and deviser of concert presentation)
Anthony Flaum (Soldier)
Siobhan Redmond (Devil)

Nicola Benedetti (violin)
Nicholas Bayley (double bass)
Philip Cobb (cornet)
Louise Godwin (percussion)
Ursula Leveaux (bassoon)
Maximiliano Martín (clarinet)
Peter Moore (trombone)

Before the pandemic I had not heard Stravinsky’s 1918 masterpiece The Soldier’s Tale (L’histoire du Soldat) and now – following a Hallé film – there was this second opportunity thanks to my first visit to the Edinburgh International Festival for several years. Of course, this was only virtually thanks to their interesting ‘At Home’ initiative (click here). 2021 has been, it seems, a success even though this performance was in something that looked like a gigantic polytunnel with odd (given this was ostensibly an outdoor event) socially distanced seating.

2021 is the 50th anniversary of Stravinsky’s death, together with Swiss writer Charles Ferdinand Ramuz he had conceived The Soldier’s Tale to ‘be read, played, and danced’ (lue, jouée et dansée) by three actors, one or more dancers and seven instrumentalists. Nicola Benedetti in her filmed introduction reminded us that this small ensemble was the result of the ‘inventiveness’ necessitated by the pandemic of another era, Spanish flu of a century ago. (In fact, it caused the cancellation of its first tour at the start of the twentieth century which mirrors the desperate plight of so many events in all branches of the arts in the last eighteenth months or so.)

The Soldiers Tale is one of the first examples of music theatre having its origins in a Russian fairy tale and explores the well-known Faustian myth. It becomes the parable of a soldier who returns from war and exchanges his treasured violin for a book promising untold economic wealth. The buyer is the devil, and he has, of course, bought the soldier’s soul.

Stravinsky’s music is distinctly of the twentieth century with its changing time signatures, harmonies and melodies. Benedetti described it all as ‘an incredibly unique sound and huge amount of contrast and allows us to have the intimacy of the airs which is the violin character – the soldier playing the violin – which is very casual and intimate and equally allows us to have the “Marche Royale” which is the biggest amount of sound we can possibly produce.’

Sir Thomas Allen was typically urbane as the Narrator and was credited as responsible for the concert presentation. Everyone was dressed semi-formally and only Benedetti in red stood out against the general sombre colours. There were a series of grey stage flats surrounding the performers with seven behind the musicians giving a hint of a two-dimensional Stonehenge to what we saw. Otherwise, there was just a basic wooden desk and a single chair at the front of the platform. An oft-used narration (courtesy of Michael Flanders and Kitty Blake) begins ‘Down a hot and dusty road tramped a soldier with his load. Ten days leave he has to spend, will his journey never end’. A dapper looking waistcoated soldier (Anthony Flaum) sits at the desk and rummages through his small army (canvas?) bag. The devil spies on the soldier and while he is going through the bag sees him take out his battered ‘old brown fiddle’. The devil quickly persuades the soldier to swop it for a book that predicts the future and to stay with him for just three days to be taught about the book in return for violin lessons. He is also promised ‘Steak, eggs and chips three times a day’ as well as Rosé Champagne and Havana cigars! The problem so far is that although we see and hear the reading and the playing, there is no dancing! Also, the devil is referred to as ‘Old Fellow’ and ‘Old Man’ and so here we get gender blind casting with Siobhan Redmond as our hero’s nemesis.

I was surprised with this second hearing of Stravinsky’s work how quickly the first part of the story moved on as the soldier is soon back tramping down his ‘hot and dusty road’ on the way home. (Spoiler alert!) when the soldier gets there ‘Every door slams shut’ as three years have passed, the girl he left behind has married and he realises ‘They all take me as a ghost’. (Here the music confirms how it acts as a Greek chorus to the developing story and we hear a plaintive interlude [‘Pastorale’] with the bassoon and clarinet duetting.) Things move on as although he becomes a success, he soon accepts that money doesn’t always result in happiness: ‘They have nothing and yet they have it all and I who have everything have nothing […] What can I do to have nothing at all […] to be as I used to be’. The devil returns to tempt him offering his original possessions back to him including the violin which ‘remains silent’ before the soldier tears the book ‘into a 1000 pieces’ as Part I ends.

In Part II the soldier learns the king’s daughter is ill and ‘neither sleeps, nor speaks, nor eats, nor anything’ and whosoever cures her can claim the royal princess as his wife. (Cue the jazzy, syncopated Royal March from all the musicians). The devil in disguise is challenged to a game of cards involving much (mimed here) drinking. The more of the devil’s money he loses the stronger the soldier becomes and the weaker he is. Reclaiming his violin, the soldier plays ‘Petit concert’ (‘The Little Concert’), music which cried out to be danced to (but wasn’t). The princess miraculously recovers as the soldier plays the ‘Three Dances’ (Benedetti’s violin sounding particularly furious here). There is no happy ending and although the violin’s ‘Devil’s Dance’ tames the devil he vows to have his revenge and demands the soldier choose as ‘No one can have it all, that is forbidden’. The soldier chooses wife and home but has been warned not to cross the frontier. No more spoilers but the final piece is a devilish ‘Marche triomphale du diable’ for violin (slashing chords from Benedetti) and percussion (consummate concluding solo from the laidback Louise Godwin).

The Soldier’s Tale at Edinburgh Academy Junior School

Previous comments I have made on Stravinsky’s music still apply and it could not have had better advocates than Benedetti and her virtuosic soloists. It is lively, alternately rhythmic and lyrical and ‘samples’ a number of influences. Alongside Luther’s ‘Ein feste Burg’ in the ‘Petit choral’ (‘Little Chorale’), there is klezmer music and Bach, as well as jazz and popular dances such as the pasodoble in ‘Marche Royale’ (‘The Royal March’) and ‘Trois danses’ (‘Three Dances’ – Tango, Waltz and Ragtime) which are played by the soldier to heal the princess. It all conjures up a world recovering from a war and a pandemic, although it does not address either. Hearing Benedetti’s playing I was reminded of Freund Hein – the allegorical figure from German folklore – who is depicted in Mahler’s Fourth Symphony and the second movement’s ‘Dance of Death’. Mahler wanted the violinist to tune their instrument a whole tone higher than usual to make its sound rather eerie and unsettling. Exactly what we heard from Benedetti’s violin.

No complaints in general about the reading and acting and all three performers were fully engaged in bringing The Soldier’s Tale to life. There were some odd choices of accent though, including some Geordie from Thomas Allen and Siobhan Redmond who seemed to hail from East Europe at the start and then tour northern England before settling to her native Scottish brogue. Regardless, as before, I realised at the end that I had been completely drawn into Stravinsky’s world which took its grip and didn’t let go of me until the end.

Jim Pritchard

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