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Façade (the complete extant numbers).

Suite from the incidental music to Salome.
Eleanor Bron, Richard Stilgoe, The Nash Ensemble, David Lloyd-Jones.
Hyperion CDA67239.

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The history of the Edith Sitwell/William Walton Entertainment Façade is a complicated one, further confused by the Sitwells' attempts to have us believe that the first public performance was a near riot - when it was nothing of the sort. As Edith herself put it, Façade started as an enquiry 'into the effect on rhythm, and on speed, of the use of rhymes, assonances and dissonances, placed outwardly and inwardly (at different places in the line) and in most elaborate patterns'. This was 1921-2, a time of literary experimentation and revolt, with James Joyce's Ulysses and T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land standing out as among the most significant works of that period. The Sitwell brothers suggested that the verses would benefit from musical accompaniment. Façade was at first intended for private performance only, and one cold January evening in 1922, in Osbert's Chelsea home, 16 poems were recited to music composed - at first reluctantly - by the Sitwells' twenty-year-young protégé and lodger, William Walton.

The success of this novelty (with reciter and musicians all concealed behind a painted curtain and Edith declaiming her verses through a kind of megaphone) led to another private performance and eventually to a public presentation in the Aeolian Hall in June 1923. By then the content and order of the Entertainment had been changed: three poems had been dropped and fifteen added. And so with successive performances further changes were made until a final order of 21 poems was decided on and published. Altogether, at one time or another 44 poems were used in the developement of Façade (43 if one of the titles was a purely instrumental item).

In 1977 Walton was persuaded to look again at some of the rejected settings, eight of which he assembled for performance as Façade Revived. Not happy with that, he replaced three of them with three others, calling this new collection Façade 2 which was then published and issued in facsimile in 1980, together with an LP recording (OUP201, nla) of both Façade and Façade 2. The reciters were Cathy Berberian and Robert Tear, and Steuart Bedford conducted. Ten years later Façade and Façade 2 were recorded for the Chandos Walton Edition, this time for CD, with Susana Walton and Richard Baker the reciters and Richard Hickox conducting (CHAN 8869).

How, then, does this new release from Hyperion, with 'the complete extant numbers', differ ? In addition to the 21 poems of the definitive version of Façade and the 8 poems resurrected for Façade 2, there are the three that were tried out in Façade Revived but ultimately dropped, and one other, Small Talk, that was dropped in 1926 after three performances and exists in autograph only. The excellent 64-page booklet, with authoritative notes by David Lloyd-Jones who conducts, includes the texts of not only the 33 poems recorded but also - a thoughtful addition - the lost or incomplete numbers.

These 33 poems, together with the Fanfare, have been presented, as the booklet informs us, 'in a new and, it is hoped, convincing performance order, shared between two speakers.' While there may indeed be some musical sense in this order, the published groups of Façade and Façade 2 with an appendix of the rejected items would still seem a more natural presentation. However, the CD format with a programmable player does allow some interesting variations. Anyone wishing to recreate as far as is possible the private première on 24 January 1922 should cue the following tracks (the items in square brackets being the missing numbers): 22, 28, 5, [The Wind's Bastinado], 13, [Interlude], 14, 18, 8, 2, 6, 34, [Switchback], [Bank Holiday], [Springing Jack], 3, 4.

Similarly, those wanting to imagine themselves at the first public performance in the Aeolian Hall on 12 June 1923 should programme this order: 1, [Overture], 12, [Clown Argheb's Song], 14, [Trams], 22, [Switchback], 18, 20, 13, [Serenade], 28, 23, 9, 6, 19, 16, 21, [Gone Dry], 4, 8, 3, 2, 5, 11, [Dark Song], 33, [Ass-Face], 34.

The definitive published order is as follows: 1 - 4, 6, 9, 10, 14, 15, 17, 19 - 21, 24 - 27, 30 - 34 (the first number being the introductory Fanfare). Façade Revived consisted of: 16, 23, 29, 28, 7, 11, 5, 13. For Façade 2 this was changed to: 23, 5, 7, 22, 28, 12, 8, 13.

So much for the history. What about the performances ? A successful rendering of Façade depends almost entirely on the reciters, for their ability to articulate the often tongue-twisting lines of inconsequence, and on their avoidance of over-characterisation lest the listener is drawn more to the personality of the speaker than to the pure sound of the words. The reason for having a curtain in the first place was, after all, to make the speaker(s) more impersonal. Judgement of any version will be more than usual an extremely personal matter as regards the suitability of the voices, and what may work - and even amuse - in the concert hall may be less effective on repeated hearing on CD. The first poem, Hornpipe, is a cruel test. Paul Scofield, in his recording with Walton conducting (Belart 450 136-2), makes the listener only too conscious of the reciter's problems and for this reason alone his version cannot be recommended. (The conditions were anyway not ideal as the music was recorded separately from the voices.) In this new version Eleanor Bron and Richard Stilgoe give a spirited account with splendid support from the Nash Ensemble under David Lloyd-Jones. Stilgoe is moderately successful in that taxing opening number, but while he manages some of the other poems well enough, he does not always accentuate the consonants sufficiently and his occasional tendency to put on 'silly voices' may for some become irritating on repeated hearing. He is more effective when 'straight' in movements like March and Tarantella. Nevertheless, those who don't mind Façade being 'sent up' just a little - and why not ? - will find much to enjoy in this latest release. Eleanor Bron is generally better suited. She carries off the virtuoso Tango-Pasodoblé splendidly at full speed, though elsewhere her sometimes lazy, even tired-sounding, delivery would benefit from the precision that Dame Edith herself could bring to the role and which the words demand. But some of the fault may lie in the recording. Although a good one, the balance between the reciters and the instrumentalists does not always allow the words to come over with clarity, and compared with many other recordings of Façade the key performers are not given quite the prominence they need. Bring back the sengerphone !

The rejected settings are rather more austere than most of the published ones, confirming what Angus Morrison, pianist friend of Walton's, had said about the earlier numbers being more Schoenbergian, written under the shadow of Pierrot Lunaire. (Although Pierrot was not performed in London until 1923, Walton had a score.) It was unlikely too that Walton could escape the influence of Stravinsky: the woodwind opening to Gardiner Janus catches a Naiad and the brief processional moments in Aubade and By the Lake surely suggest that he was present at the first British performance of The Rite of Spring in June 1921, Eugene Goossens conducting. But one constantly marvels at the assurance and the originality of this amazing work and how it has stood the test of time. There are one or two interesting changes. The vocal score specifies only a single reciter for Façade but Walton preferred two and in later years always asked for two in public performance and on record. While it is usual to give a whole poem to one reciter, in By the lake the two reciters are used in alternation, while in The Last Galop they combine most effectively in unison (in Façade Revived this setting was given to the male reciter alone).

For a complete Façade nobody should be without the classic account issued in 1954 with Edith herself and Peter Pears as reciters, and Anthony Collins conducting the English Opera Group Ensemble (Decca 425 661-2, and just re-issued with a different coupling on 468 801-2DWO). For real authenticity one should also have the 11 items that Edith and Constant Lambert recorded in 1929 with Walton conducting (Symposium 1203 or Claremont CD GSE 78-50-65). Lambert, Walton's firm favourite, stands in a class of his own, inimitable; he and Pears were the only two reciters of whom Edith really approved. And she too, the begetter of these extraordinary verses, knew better than anyone how they should be spoken. Listen in her 1929 recording to how she delivers one of the most haunting settings, A Man from a Far Countree. Taking it a shade faster than Eleanor Bron, she has no need to prolong a monosyllabic word like 'black'. Hearing her recite some verses of Gertrude Stein, Cecil Beaton once wrote of Edith's 'bell-clear voice . . . how precisely and richly she spoke. She could make any rubbish sound like poetry'. When touring America in 1949, she made a recording of Façade as the sole reciter (save one poem, Tango-Pasodoblé, that she could not manage), conducted by Frederick Prausnitz (Sony SMK 46685). But Edith was then over 60 and age had slowed her delivery and softened her attack when faced with the task of tackling the whole cycle. Oddly enough, five years later she sounds fresher when sharing the task with another speaker. To modern ears, however, the Lambert and Sitwell versions may sound too dated and there is always room for fresh interpretations, in which case this new one, under the able direction of David Lloyd-Jones, is well worth considering. It comes in a handsome casing, with John Piper's 1942 curtain design on the cover.

One should not, however, overlook Pamela Hunter's 'complete version' (Discover DICD 920125). Available in some places at super-budget price ($6), it is an essential addition to any Walton collection. Her enunciation of the words is exemplary, as is her recorded balance. The first 18 tracks have the poems in the order used at the first (private) performance and - a novel approach - she reads those poems for which the music is no longer extant. Although she omits three further poems for which the music is now lost (Clown Argheb's Song, Gone Dry and Dark Song), musically her CD is, like this new Hyperion release, as complete as possible. The booklet contains all the texts. If one is to hear the whole CD in a single sitting one might feel that having two reciters avoids any monotony of the single voice, but because the words are of prime importance it has to be said that Pamela Hunter's version is the one to be preferred. With her, the last word in A Man from a Far Countree, instead of a firm spoken 'oh', becomes an expressive hushed 'ah!' which might well echo the listener's reaction to this version.

This Hyperion CD concludes with a rarity, a suite compiled by Giles Easterbrook from the incidental music that Constant Lambert wrote in 1931 for the first British staging of Oscar Wilde's play Salome, at the Gate Theatre, London. In 1910 Beecham had been able to put on Strauss's opera based on the Wilde play only after some cat-and-mouse game with the Lord Chamberlain. In 1931 the play still held some notoriety. But by being a club, the Gate Theatre was able to present plays that might have then been considered of a risqué or immoral nature. If Façade calls for six players (two of them doubling), Lambert's score for Salome required only four: clarinet, trumpet, cello and percussion. According to Lambert's biographer Richard Shead, 'the small group were placed on a shelf above the dressing-room. The cast had to get in early and shut the door so that a ladder could be propped between stage and orchestra; Lambert mounted the ladder and conducted while perched on one of the rungs'. This astringent nine-minute suite indicates the tonally divergent paths that Lambert and Walton were taking, the latter at that time deeply involved in the writing of Belshazzar's Feast. (Curiously enough, in 1971 Walton's First Symphony was used as the basis for a Dutch ballet on Salome.) As David Lloyd-Jones admirably puts it in the booklet, the musical numbers are 'short, even scrappy, for that was all that was needed to link the scenes and events of the play'. The most extended section is a seductive Dance of the Seven Veils of cumulative excitement and energy (choreographed by the late Dame Ninette de Valois), ending with dramatic representation of the executioner's blow. As well as the opening trumpet call, several bars at [37] 1' 37" are recognisable as having been later reworked in Lambert's masterpiece Summer's Last Will and Testament (1932-35). This premier recording of the suite is a valuable piece of documentation.

© Stephen Lloyd

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