The Soldier's Tale
Igor Stravinsky, 1918
This is one of my favorite Stravinsky works, probably the first piece of chamber music of his that I'd ever heard. I remember studying it as an undergrad and getting so caught up in its rhythmic world. It's a piece of music that combines several of my favorite things: a drama expressed in musical rhetoric, a non-standard instrumental ensemble, integration of the spoken word into music, meticulously crafted overlapping ostinati, interpretations of popular music styles, etc. There's the sense of a finely-wrought mathematical jigsaw puzzle, and simultaneously a very organic instinctual feeling for cadence and rhythm which is uniquely beautiful to me. Stravinsky's sense of pacing, both on the small scale and the large, are so precisely right that it makes my hair stand on end.
So there's a story (hence the word "Tale" in the title). It's a little parable about a soldier matching wits with the Devil. The three voices (the soldier, the devil, and a narrator) don't sing, but speak their words, sometimes in an exacting rhythm, and sometimes in ordinary speech, always over musical accompaniment. With good actors who also have a fairly sophisticated musical sense, it can be very compelling. There are long stretches of purely instrumental music as well, some of it angular and deliberate, some of it lush and fluid, all of it engaging. Stravinsky writes idiosyncratically for the instruments in the ensemble (2 brass instruments, 2 woodwinds, 2 strings, plus 1 percussionist = brilliant concept), teasing out combinations and sonorities that seem ludicrous in theory, yet are beautiful in actuality.
The recording that I enjoy is one that has big-name actors preforming the spoken roles: Ian McKellen as the narrator, Sting (yep, that one) as the soldier, and Vanessa Redgrave in a bit of excellent casting, as the devil. They all chew up the auditory scenery, overacting and emoting up a storm. Redgrave in particular seems to be having a ball. But this is a melodrama after all, and for me it's infectious - I have fun right along with them. But despite the star-power of the actors, to me the real gem is the conductor, Kent Nagano. He's one of my favorite conductors overall, and probably my all-time favorite conductor of Stravinsky's works. Not many can make the adjustments necessary to direct a smaller ensemble like this, but he is right there in it, making the music breathe and sparkle and meditate and gallop. It's quite an accomplishment in itself, and of course it helps that he's got some amazing instrumentalists too.
So this recording is a treat, and the piece of music an essential one. You really feel like you've been brought into a special universe of musical and dramatic relationships that can only exist in this defined space - perfect for what is after all an allegorical tale.