CD review: The Soldier’s Tale with Birtwistle & Benjamin

First published in the Guardian on 16 March, 2017

Stravinsky: The Soldier’s Tale
Royal Academy of Music Soloists/Knussen (Linn)

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 as 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 Royal Academy’s Manson Ensemble is taught, fearless, detailed. In typical Knussen programming, the rest of the disc is a web of composers commemorating each other in tender miniatures, including the tributes for Stravinsky by Peter Maxwell Davies and Birtwistle.