The Soldier's Tale is one of the most problematic of Stravinsky's major works. Its pared-down dramatic framework, requiring just a narrator, two dancers and a handful of instrumentalists, may have been hugely influential, but in performance it rarely seems to come across with the power that should be conveyed by this bleak morality tale.
Here, though, was a version that preserved much of that intensity, helped immeaurably by having a fine instrumental ensemble playing the score with real engagement and wit. The line-up included clarinettist Michael Collins and trumpeter Hakan Hardenberger, with Isabelle van Keulen's violin-playing adding real pungency and propulsion. There was no choreography, but Sam West provided the narration, using Michael Flanders and Kitty Black's regulation English rhyming version of Ramuz's original text, which certainly does the job even though it sometimes replaces dark menace with home counties cosiness. West spoke it unfussily, providing a real foil to the music.
The ensemble required for The Soldier's Tale is so quirky that building a programme around it can never be straightforward. Hardenburger came to rescue here with his arrangements of some early music by HK Gruber; the MOB Pieces were composed in the late 1960s when Gruber was one of the leaders of an anti-avant-garde movement in Vienna. Now this music's sly tonal harmonies and slinky dance rhythms seem charming rather than subversive; in the Austrian capital at the time of their premiere, though, they must have seemed positively incendiary.