Wednesday 3 May 2017

Fresh and distinctive: Walton's Facade from Zeb Soanes, Carol Boyd & John Wilson

Walton Facade - Zeb Soanes, Carole Boyd - Orchid Classics
Walton Facade; Carole Boyd, Zeb Soanes, John Wilson; Orchid Classics
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Apr 13 2017
Star rating: 4.5

Refreshing new look at Walton and Sitwell's classic, along with a fascinating archive interview with the poet

Dame Edith Sitwell's recordings of William Walton's Facade with Constant Lambert and and Peter Pears (handily available together on a CD) have become iconic, a model for how to treat the piece, yet if you go back to the score Sitwell's treatment of her verse. Fidelity to the score, particularly the spoken rhythms, was the starting point for record producer Andrew Keener's new recording of Facade. On the Orchid Classics label. He brought together reciters Carole Boyd and Zeb Soanes, and an instrumental ensemble conducted by John Wilson, and paired Facade not with another musical work but with a fascinating 1955 BBC interview with Dame Edith herself.

One interesting linking fact about the two reciters is that both are best known just for their voices, actress Carole Boyd plays Lynda Snell in the radio series The Archers, whilst Zeb Soanes can be heard reading the news of BBC Radio 4. Whether this was deliberate choice I don't know, but it certainly means that both are used to using the voice without relying on visual signals as well.

Recording Facade - John Wilson, Zeb Soanes & Ensemble
Recording Facade - John Wilson, Zeb Soanes
& Ensemble
Chatting to Carole Boyd and Zeb Soanes at the CD launch (see my article), both were frank about the difficulties of getting Facade 'right', as well as their determination to bring out Sitwell's poetry, rather than using it simply as a rhythmic hook. Early on in the process Soanes had been warned by Dame Felicity Palmer (herself no mean reciter in the work) to never underestimate Facade.

One point about Facade is how spotlit the soloists should be, are they soloists or are they simply part of the instrumental texture. At the early performances Sitwell used a Sengaphone (a type of megaphone) and there have been recent performances using one (it would be interesting to try an historically performed recording of the work with Sengaphone and pre-war instruments and playing style). Here Andrew Keener places the voices instrumentally so that they are not spotlit, but are part of the texture.

Almost in contrast to this, Carole Boyd and Zeb Soanes performances claim our attention. They are concerned not just with the rhythmic precision of what they speak, but the sense too. On this disc the individual movements are more than just dazzling fantasies of wit and rhythm, they are mini narratives. Boyd and Soanes split the reciting so that the different voices within a single movement come over, and each uses a variety of accents. The 'allegro negro cocktail shaker' is real American South, whilst Soanes' Sir Joshua Jebb is very pukka indeed. We notice Sitwell's language, the way she uses lists of words, such as the lovely sequence of types of material.

I have not followed the performance with a score, but the recitation does indeed seem rhythmically correct, and more than that, very alive so that Sitwell's metrical experiments in the poems really do come over and there is a genuine sense of the voices being part of the instrumental texture.

Under John Wilson's direction the seven musicians are wonderfully alert, giving us music full of dazzle and vibrancy, yet with a subtlety too.

The interview with Dame Edith is completely fascinating, it is intriguing how reverentially the three interviewers (Paul Dehn, Lionel Hale and Margaret Lane) tread Dame Edith, as if she were a crouching tiger liable to pounce at any point. She never does pounce, and seems remarkably open in her answers to the questions so that the interview makes for informative and characterful listening. The question comes, though, whether you will want to return to the interview repeatedly, or whether this disc will simply become a rather short-order disc containing only Facade.

I still think there is room in my library for Sitwell's distinctive take on Facade, and I think that I would also like a more neutral take on the recitations, something in complete contrast to Boyd and Soanes highly characterful narrative approach. But this disc is very engaging, whilst it is not a typical account of the work, the recording manages to combine fidelity to the score with an endearing freshness.
Carole Boyd & Zeb Soanes - Walton's Facade
Carole Boyd & Zeb Soanes

William Walton (1902-1983) - Facade [37.27]
Frankly Speaking - interview with Dame Edith Sitwell (1955) [27.17]
Carole Boyd (reciter)
Zeb Soanes (reciter)
Instrumental ensemble (Joshua Batty - flute / piccolo, James Burke - clarinet  Howard McGill - alto saxophone, Alan Thomas - trumpet, Alex Neal - percussion, Richard Harwood & Pierre Doumenge - cello)
John Wilson (conductor)
Recorded Henry Wood Hall, London, 23-24 October 2015, Dame Edith Sitwell interview broadcast on the BBC Home Service on 25 November 1955
Available from Amazon.

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