SCO : The Soldier’s Tale
Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh
WITH the new year lockdown across the UK impacting on the making of concert films already announced – including the SCO’s contribution to Celtic Connections with Pekka Kuusisto and Karine Polwart – it is fortunate that the orchestra already had “in the can” its early acknowledgement of the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Igor Stravinsky.
As a full online programme note for the transmission by David Kettle makes very clear, it is not hard to find parallels between the genesis of Stravinsky’s use of Russian folk tales for a small touring ensemble and our own straitened times. In the aftermath of the First World War and in the midst of the global Spanish Flu epidemic, the celebrated composer of The Firebird and The Rite of Spring, then living in Switzerland, created compact works for a small number of musicians as an economic necessity. In fact, as the leader of the group for this performance, violinist Siun Milne, points out in her spoken introduction, the tour was then abandoned when the musicians contracted the disease.
In that context, the players involved here eloquently illustrate the strength-in-depth of the SCO’s current squad, with sub-principal violin Gordon Bragg stepping up to conduct, and Milne herself, a back desk SCO first violin, a sparkling soloist on the instrument around which much of the narrative is formed. Her partnership with Nikita Naumov is one aspect of the bassist’s work, his other eye on a rhythm section role alongside Louise Goodwin, whose playing of an orchestral drum kit is quite outstanding. The octet of performers also includes Maximiliano Martin demonstrating a huge range of tone on clarinet, and the cornet of Peter Franks a shimmering presence throughout.
If all the instrumentalists show vibrant versatility over the hour long duration, that is matched by actor Matthew McVarish, far more than the mere narrator of the story. There are many ways to perform this modernist fable, and McVarish uses the restrictions of social distancing to his advantage here, adding as many varieties of tone and accent to his cast of characters, from a stationary position.
This is an absolutely compelling re-telling of the familiar story of the consequences of trying to do a deal with Auld Nick which finds form in many cultures, and McVarish brings plenty of his own cultural background to the party in a Scots-accented tale that makes the most of the vocabulary available.
In that, it departs considerably from the source English version, by Michael Flanders and Kitty Black, made for an Edinburgh Festival performance of the mid-1950s that featured Robert Helpmann dancing the part of the Devil, and recorded by the SCO thirty years later with narration by Christopher Lee. That’s some legacy to follow, but McVarish and the SCO team make The Soldier’s Tale very much their own.
Available on the SCO’s YouTube and Facebook channels until February 7.
Image: The SCO’s Siun Milne and Nikita Naumov