Wednesday 9 February 2022

Orchestra of the Swan celebrates the centenary of Walton's Façade on SOMM

Walton Facade, Henry V; Roderick Williams, Tamsin Dalley, Kevin Whately, Orchestra of the Swann, Bruce O'Neil; SOMM

Walton Façade, Henry V; Roderick Williams, Tamsin Dalley, Kevin Whately, Orchestra of the Swann, Bruce O'Neil; SOMM

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 8 February 2022 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Celebrating the centenary of Walton's Façade, a lively and characterful new recording alongside the music for Henry V

William Walton's Façade, the entertainment using poems by Edith Sitwell, premiered in 1922 and to celebrate the Centenary, SOMM Recordings has issued a new disc which pairs Walton's Facade with his music from Henry V performed by Roderick Williams, Tamsin Dalley, Kevin Whately and the Orchestra of the Swan, conductor Bruce O'Neil, musical director of the Royal Shakespeare Company.

It is difficult to quite fathom the fuss the surrounded the premiere of Façade in 1922. Partly it was because the Sitwells were great self-publicists and loved to generate a stir, but there were boos and catcalls at the first public performance (in the Aeolian Hall) and press was generally condemnatory. But within a decade the music had been turned into a ballet (by Sir Frederick Ashton) and the piece was turning into something of an icon. Those first performances had Edith Sitwell reciting (through a type of megaphone invented for Fafner in the 1876 Ring Cycle at Bayreuth) and Walton conducting. In 1930, Leslie Heward conducted the work for the BBC with the reciters being Sitwell and Constant Lambert. Walton would later say that Lambert was the best reciter, closely followed by Sir Peter Pears.

Of course, what the audience heard in 1922 was rather different to Façade today. Settings of poems came and went, and only gradually did the assemblage build up. That 1930 performance, which was billed as complete, included 18 poems. We know of some Sitwell poems from her Façade collection which are recorded as being set but which do not survive. In 1977, Walton would produce Façade Revived and in 1979, Façade II, which included movements not in the definitive version.

The definitive Façade was published in 1951, so it effectively took 30 years to settle and the final form, 21 poems in seven groups of three, owes much to Constant Lambert's suggestion that Walton emulate Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire which has a similar form. What I am unclear of is how much Walton (who was still only 20 when Façade premiered) knew about Pierrot Lunaire when he was writing the work in 1922, presumably he did.

Here the reciters are Roderick Williams and Tamsin Dalley. There are no set allocations to the recitations, and rather than taking turn and turn about with each number, Williams and Dalley use a scheme created by Bruce O'Neil which turns each number into something of a dramatic scene, and Williams in particular relishes this by using a wide variety of accents. This aspect of the performance may not suit everyone. Yes, Sitwell's poems include characters and amidst the bizarre situations are echoes of her family and upbringing, but the poet regarded the poems as being about sound, they were experiments with rhythms and sounds, using long and short syllables, assonance and consonance. This abstract quality is lost when you bring out the dramatic element, but a work of art is strong enough to take different readings.

It has to be said that Façade is difficult, and I have heard a number of bad performances, actors can find getting the rhythms precise rather difficult whereas singers sometimes struggle with projecting the actual text, and some of the faster numbers are stunning tongue twisters. The best live performance I ever heard featured two well-established singers, Cathy Berberian and Robert Tear.

As the work opens we can enjoy the chamber lightness and élan from the players. And throughout there is a sense of this being a chamber work for voices and instruments, rather than having the instruments as accompaniment. The faster movements do certainly have a brilliance to them, though there is also a sense of adhering to the notated rhythms; then again, if the reciters didn't do that, I would probably be chiding them for sloppiness. This gives you a sense of the trickiness of the piece.

Both reciters bring a sense of strong characterisation, making each movement an engaging little drama. There is often a steadiness to speeds which enables the performers to bring out detail, full of colour and rhythm, all done with relish. This approach means that different movements come to attention, so that I really enjoyed 'Valse' when it can often disappear into the background.

The companion work is Walton's music for Sir Lawrence Olivier's film, Henry V. Produced in 1944, Walton was no longer the young tyro but a mature composer well able to create stirring patriotic music alongside the wittier elements. A number of orchestral suites were produced (with the composer's sanction), but in 1988 Christopher Palmer created a larger work, the Henry V: Shakespeare Scenario which uses more music and links the pieces with a spoken narration taken from the play. A reduced version of this was commissioned from Edward Watson by English Serenata in 1992. That is what we hear on the disc, with Kevin Whately as the narrator. The original recording of Plummer's Scenario on Chandos lasts a whisker over 60 minutes whereas this recording is 42 minutes. I am not clear what has been trimmed, and the booklet notes do not say.

There is little sense of reduction in the performance from the orchestra which plays with great élan. The scenario gives us plenty of the orchestra but not so much of Kevin Whately and the result is perhaps rather less than drama and rather more than simple incidental music. It has the advantage that we can enjoy Walton's music in context. And whilst you might consider the best way to listen to this music is by watching the film, this performance brings the orchestra contribution further to the fore. So, we can enjoy the colourful details of Walton's imagination, details that often disappear when our eyes and ears are drawn the action in the film.

Sir William Walton (1902-1983) - Facade [38:30]
William Walton - Music from Henry V [42:26]

Roderick Williams, Tamsin Dalley (reciters)
Kevin Whately (narrator)
Orchestra of the Swan
Bruce O'Neil (conductor)
Recorded at Stratford Play House, 11-12 May 2021
SOMM Recordings SOMMCD 277 [80:56]

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