JoAnn Valletta conducts Stravinsky: The Soldier’s Tale

Our rating 
3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

COMPOSERS: Igor Stravinsky
LABELS: Naxos
ALBUM TITLE: Stravinsky
WORKS: The Soldier’s Tale
PERFORMER: Fred Child, Jared McGuire, Jeff Biehl (actors); Tianwa Yang (violin); Virginia Arts Festival Chamber Players/JoAnn Falletta
CATALOGUE NO: Naxos 8.573537

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Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz’s over-wordy, unstraightforward devil’s-pact fable, combined with Stravinsky’s all too intermittent music, is a difficult double-act to bring off. For me it worked for its first time on disc, in French, with Jean Cocteau’s narration, Peter Ustinov as the Devil, and supreme instrumentalists including trumpeter Maurice André under Igor Markevitch, recently reissued as an historical bonus on Deutsche Grammophon’s 30-CD Stravinsky Edition (reviewed in the Stravinsky feature of the January 2016 issue). That set also included a Boston performance including Ron Moody as an extraordinary Devil. Which is a roundabout way of saying that both interpretations cast this new performance in the shade.

The very American actors are all committed, energised and thoroughly professional, with good interplay between Fred Child and Jared McGuire, though I’d have liked more vocal differentiation from Jeff Biehl as the Devil in various guises. The problem is that, right from the start, the players are too polite: this is a soldier with a far too heavy load on his back. All play technically well, but there’s no hint of rough country-band rollicking or klezmer panache. The Royal March lacks swagger, especially alongside André and Markevitch, and the Chorales aren’t climactic enough. Violinist Tianwa Yang, lighter of touch, comes into her subtle own as the Soldier wins the Princess with his fiddling, but it’s not enough.

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David Nice