Stravinsky: The Soldier's Tale CD review – bizarre, joyous Faustian fable

Kate Molleson
Adept performance … the conductor Oliver Knussen. Photograph: Boston Globe via Getty Images

There’s an American tradition of asking venerable composers to take the speaking roles in Stravinsky’s 1918 Faustian music-theatre fable The Soldier’s Tale. Babbitt and Carter did it as nonagenarians; Copland played Narrator to the Devils of John Cage and Virgil Thomson. The custom is honoured here with Oliver Knussen conducting Harrison Birtwistle as a superbly laconic Soldier – it sounds as though he couldn’t care less when his luck is down; the despondency is glorious – and George Benjamin makes a deliciously supercilious Devil. The contrast is bizarre and joyous, perhaps tinged with a darker message akin to Yeats’s The Second Coming. Harriet Walter narrates adeptly; the playing of the Royal Academy’s Manson Ensemble is taut, fearless and detailed. In typical Knussen programming, the rest of the disc is a web of composers commemorating each other in tender miniatures, including the tributes to Stravinsky by Peter Maxwell Davies and Birtwistle.

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