Prom Chamber Music 6: 27th August 2001- “Stravinsky’s Scintillating Soldier”

Photograph of Stravinsky as conductor

The Soldier’s Tale

Samuel West (narrator)
Britten Sinfonia Soloists conducted by Nicholas Cleobury

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 27 August, 2001
Venue: Lecture Theatre, Victoria and Albert Museum, London

There really is something special about the Chamber Music Proms at the Victoria and Albert Museum every Monday throughout the main season.

Although it would have been lost on Radio 3 listeners, the Britten Sinfonia Soloists, narrator and conductor had asked to come on stage before the concert went on air, so they could tune and settle. We applauded when they did so, and then – for the broadcast – applauded again after Stephanie Hughes’s introduction. There is something gleefully duplicitous to take part in such deception – perhaps not devilish, but that would be entirely appropriate when, as here, the work was Stravinsky’s cost-cutting, portable performance-piece written while he was ’in exile’ in Switzerland after the First World War: The Soldier’s Tale.

The audience was more varied than in other recitals in this series – a number were young, and the celebrity ratio was much higher. It was nice to see Timothy West – often seen at concerts – coming to see his son. The entrance of Mary Archer and one of her sons was perhaps more of a surprise – and it would be, no doubt, too much to read into the situation that there was a similarity between her incarcerated husband and the soldier of the tale who is given a book by the devil which will make him rich, but who has to pay for it in the end…

An engaging hour ensued, with Sam West effortlessly impersonating the gullible soldier, the many-faced devil, the Princess he eventually wins and the many other characters. The septet of instrumental soloists equally characterised their parts – Pauline Lowbury made her violin sing whether it was meant to be in the soldier’s hands or the devil’s, supported by the steady tramp of Stephen Williams’s double bass. Clarinettist Joy Farrell and bassoonist Julie Andrews represented the wind; the brass was in the capable hands of Paul Archibald (trumpet) and James Casey (trombone).Percussionist, Colin Currie, made the most of his parts for bass, side and two tenor drums, triangle and tambourine.

They gave the impression of enjoying the performance as much as the wildly acclaiming audience. Stravinsky may go against type and not give the devil all the best tunes, but the devil does get the soldier’s soul in the end. There is the usual repeat broadcast on Radio 3, but this would make an ideal BBC Music Magazine cover CD.

  • BBC Radio 3 re-broadcast Sunday, 2 September, at 1 o’clock

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