On Sunday afternoon, the Boston Symphony Chamber Players presented an inspired pairing of works composed in the wake of World War I, when Modernism was still modern: Igor Stravinsky 's Suite from "L'Histoire du soldat " ("The Soldier's Tale") and William Walton 's "Façade (An Entertainment)." One fared better than the other.
Stravinsky composed "The Soldier's Tale" in 1918, as the Bolshevik revolution made his temporary exile from Russia permanent. The story, based on a Russian parable, must have struck a chord: A soldier returning from the front tangles with the devil, who has the last laugh. Forbidden from returning home, the soldier loses his soul when he succumbs to nostalgia. The players performed the concert suite, which omits the theatrical action but musically follows the plot (they are offering a fully-staged version in two Special Family Concerts on Jan. 27 ).
The performance was superb. With confidence and flair, the conductor-less group met Stravinsky's appropriately diabolical challenges; the music sounds as if it's been broken into shards and haphazardly reassembled. A mini-suite of dances -- a tango, a waltz, and a bit of ragtime -- was particularly enticing, led by violinist Malcolm Lowe 's subtle, improvisation-like playing, his sharply percussive tones becoming lyrically warm as the fiddler-soldier stumbles upon a sudden inspiration. Percussionist Timothy Genis dispatched his tricky part with grace and character -- and amazingly, from memory.
Edith Sitwell 's "Façade" poems, Modernist experiments in making speech sounds simulate dance rhythms, were fashioned into a musical "entertainment" by the Sitwells' lodger, a 19-year-old Oxford dropout. Premiered in 1922, "Façade" made William Walton famous. His music is remarkable: Popular styles are conjured with deft strokes, while unexpected harmonies hint at darker themes. Instead of being sung, the poems are declaimed in strictly notated rhythm.
Veteran actor-director Alvin Epstein and vocalist Joan Morris , best known for her collaborations with composer-husband William Bolcom , recited the texts. Each is a legend in his or her own right; here they were miscast. The point of "Façade" is that speech is just one musical element among many, but Epstein and Morris provided a full-blown dramatic interpretation, and, while at times engaging, their effortful (and over-amplified) enunciation overpowered the musical detail and slowed faster numbers to a crawl. Rhythms lagged dangerously; only the alert direction of Boston Symphony Orchestra assistant conductor Jens Georg Bachmann kept some movements from going seriously awry.
Occasionally, when the speakers opted for simplicity, the players were able to relax, and beautiful things started to happen: The "Valse" featured lovely interplay between flutist Elizabeth Rowe and clarinetist William Hudgins , and a charming "Popular Song" was highlighted by delicate, jazzy phrasing from saxophonist Kenneth Radnofsky and trumpeter Thomas Rolfs. But those were exceptions. Morris and Epstein wittily dressed for the occasion, in burnt-orange velvet and a smoking jacket, respectively. The performance could have used more of that insouciant ease.