It's quite safe to say to every enthusiast for Stravinsky that the musical side of this production is excellent, supported by faultless recordings from 1995 and 1996, and the disc is an excellent bargain as well, as you would expect from Naxos. The style adopted for this English version of The Soldier's Tale is completely consistent on its own terms too. The soldier himself sounds innocent and green, as of course he should do. He also sounds rather suburban, Purley rather than Peckham, whereas I would have expected him to sound more proletarian. However, if he had sounded that way he would have been out of keeping with the text he is given. This English translation is by two authors in collaboration, the one whose name I know being Michael Flanders. Without any disrespect to Flanders's memory as an entertainer, I can't really feel that his idiom fits this quirky little variant on the Faust legend. I certainly agree that rhyming verse is the right way to do it, as that helps to keep the listener's focus. (The text is not printed in the liner, and I don't believe you will need it there.) What I find all the same is that the rhymes here are dreadfully flat-footed. The English language is not very rich in rhymes, as Housman said by way of noting Swinburne's extraordinary ingenuity in overcoming this limitation. However I really yearn for better rhymes than we get here, and indeed for an English diction generally that is not so dated and 1950's insipid. In this year of grace (or disgrace) 2009 the theme of money being the devil's tool of corruption and damnation has a very strong resonance, and I would love to see and hear a new English text for The Soldier's Tale that is more in keeping with our own era and culture.
Obviously I don't expect everybody to share this viewpoint, and I gladly concede that the spoken side of the performance at least has integrity and consistency from its own standpoint. Where I hope I will get more agreement is in my opinion of the instrumental playing, which I would call excellent without qualification. There are seven instrumentalists, all rightly identified by name, in The Soldier, and they play Stravinsky as I love to hear him played - the tone clear, the texture clean and linear, the rhythm crisp. The purely instrumental sections, mainly the marches and the various dances but with a solemn contrast provided by the trumpet and trombone in the two chorales, are just right to my ears, and well recorded too, as they need to be. The English version of the liner note appears to be by Keith Anderson if I have tracked this information down accurately, and it does what I would call its proper job in giving a detailed synopsis of the action. There are also short profiles of the three actors, together with brief notes on the Northern Chamber Orchestra and its conductor Nicholas Ward who perform the Dumbarton Oaks concerto that provides a welcome filler to The Soldier's Tale.
I love concerti grossi, and I love the Dumbarton Oaks concerto grosso in particular. For anyone so far unfamiliar with it, Stravinsky modelled it on the Brandenburg concertos of J S Bach, using the 3-movement format that Bach uses in 5 out of his 6. The performers are the admirable Northern Chamber Orchestra, founded in Manchester in 1967. Even a small orchestra sounds rich and full-toned after the austere septet that accompanies the soldier and his tale. I enjoyed this contrast just for its own sake, and the speeds were my idea of right in all three movements. Only the first is marked `tempo giusto', but I found three tempi giusti.
Perhaps I am wrong in not giving the full 5 stars to this fine disc, but you know what my reason for that is, whatever you think of it. I am thoroughly pleased to have acquired it, and with any luck time may reconcile me, at least partially, to the text.