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Cantatas for Soprano
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Sir William WALTON (1902-1983) Fašade (1942 version) [37.27]
Carole Boyd and Zeb Soames (reciters), ensemble/John Wilson
rec. Henry Wood Hall, London, 23-24 October 2015
Interview with Dame Edith Sitwell, 25 November 1955 [27.17]
Texts not provided ORCHID CLASSICSORC100067 [64.44]
It is difficult to believe nowadays, but there seems to be no doubt that when Walton’s Fašade first appeared it was firmly pigeon-holed as a product of the extreme avant-garde movement. Ernest Newman, reviewing an early performance in London, noted that the work was then advertised by the concert promoters as having “shocked Noel Coward,” although he reserved his own judgement on whether this reaction reflected on Walton or Coward. At that time, Coward was certainly viewed as the enfant terrible of British theatre. This reputation, too, is hard to credit when one recalls some of the products of his later years, but it can still be recaptured through a reading of his short stories. Their sense of innocent immorality and their hatred of hypocrisy and cruelty in all its forms serve to remind us of his own impoverished origins.
Be that as it may, Walton’s Fašade found itself placed in much the same class as Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire with its combination of ‘fantastic’ poetry (delivered for much of the time in spoken voice) together with a small chamber ensemble. But in fact the iconoclasm of Walton and his mentors the Sitwells owed rather more to the French influence of Les Six, who in turn drew on the similar experiments with spoken voice and instruments by Satie and Stravinsky (Newman’s review draws attention to the parallels between the latter and Walton). What is novel in Fašade is the insistence on strict rhythmic delivery of the spoken texts, and it is notable that most of the early performances employed either Edith Sitwell herself or musicians – such as Constant Lambert, Peter Pears or Cleo Laine – rather than actors. Indeed, some of the notated passages, in particular the headlong helter-skelter of the ‘cadenza’ beginning with the words “Thetis wrote a treatise”, are a real tour de force for any performer; the best reciter should ideally leave the listener here open-mouthed in amazement.
By the time Walton himself came to record Fašade in his later years, the score had become established as a popular favourite, even more so in the form of the orchestral suites extracted from the whole. On that occasion, Walton employed two actors at the very peak of the profession – Paul Scofield and Peggy Ashcroft. To my mind this demonstrated that their eminence was no proof that they could master the rhythmic intricacies of the musical idiom. He also seems to have approved a recorded balance that set the voices well forward of the instruments. This, indeed, seems to have been his intention from the first, when the reciters declaimed their texts through loudspeakers in order to ensure that the audience could grasp the words – although Newman testifies that these attempts to guarantee audibility were a general failure.
In this new recording, the two reciters are engagingly portrayed on the booklet cover holding old-fashioned loud-hailers to their mouths, but the actual sound on the recording is very different. The instrumental part is exceptionally clear, well played and nuanced under the baton of John Wilson. The voices, though, placed in the same acoustic space, are relatively backward in the mix, almost as if they were placed behind the players. Since they commendably seek to inflect the text in a manner designed to convey understanding, this means that as soon as they drop their voices they disappear almost totally under the musical texture. Only in the opening of such numbers as Black Mrs Behemoth, where they are almost shouting, can their words be clearly discerned. This might just about be acceptable – a different outlook on the work, as it were – if the texts had been provided in the booklet. As it is, abstruse lines like “Heliogabalus lost his head” go for absolutely nothing. This is all the more infuriating since, so far as I can judge, both do such a good job with delivering the text. Much more than usual Carole Boyd and Zeb Soames split numbers between them, and the passage of lines from one to the other is achieved with consummate ease. Carole Boyd delivers “Thetis wrote a treatise” at a rattle of a pace, but the resultant sound is little more than a whisper. They also adopt varying accents at different times, always appropriately and to comic effect. The words in the Scottish Ballad remain barely comprehensible even so.
In a work like this, personal preferences for individual reciters are bound to play an overwhelming part in any listener’s enjoyment. I first got to know the work through an EMI recording on LP under Sir Neville Marriner, where the highly individual interpretations of Michael Flanders and Fenella Fielding immediately won me over with their characterful voices and delivery. Nevertheless, I remember reviewers at the time complaining about the occasional assumption of regional accents (Fenella Fielding’s mock-Scots dialect being a particular target of criticism). The balance struck in that recording between voices and instruments strikes me still as just about ideal, and I find it surprising that the disc is no longer listed in the catalogue. The Penguin Guide recommended the Hickox recording on Chandos, although I find Susana Walton’s – admittedly mild – Argentinian accent a bit too much of a good thing. The Chandos disc also includes additional Fašade material.
Walton was an inveterate reviser of his own scores, not always to their advantage. He took a long time to determine the final shape of Fašade, adding and deleting individual numbers over the years. Some fifty years after the first performances he devised an appendix to the score which he entitled Fašade 2, incorporating revised versions of some of the numbers he had early excised. Although these numbers are generally less effective than those he retained, they do add further flesh to our knowledge of the work, and many modern recordings include Fašade 2 as a coupling to the main suite, even adding further Sitwell items which Walton may or may not have set to make a still more substantial offering. This disc gives us merely Walton’s final thoughts on Fašade itself, but makes up the duration of the CD with a recorded interview with Edith Sitwell recorded by the BBC in the 1950s in which she vaguely discusses the nature of her poetry with occasional reference to Fašade. This is of interest mainly because of the incredibly sycophantic tone adopted by the interviewers Paul Dehn, Lionel Hale and Margaret Lane. Their oleaginous questions do not manage to extract anything of real interest from Sitwell, apart from her confirmation that the original performances of the score were met with incomprehension and downright hostility which threatened to turn into physical violence. She proudly claims Fašade as a pioneering work, giving no credit to either French or German predecessors. Her scornful attack on the text of Peter and the Wolf – she has to be prompted as to the name of the piece – may be justified, but it seems distinctly beside the point.
Apart from the versions referred to earlier, the current Archiv catalogue only lists two other alternative recordings, neither of which include Fašade 2: a Decca version conducted by Riccardo Chailly, again with Peggy Ashcroft as one of the reciters, and the old mono 1954 recording with Peter Pears and Edith Sitwell herself conducted by Anthony Collins. The latter, which comes in various transfers and couplings, is a period piece which nonetheless still sounds well. The Marriner disc was at one time available on a Music for Pleasure CD and used copies are currently listed on Amazon at around ú9.00 despite its very short running time. In its absence, the prime recommendation for the greatest amount of Fašade material must lie with Hickox on Chandos. The fullest of all performances of Fašade were on a Discover CD with Pamela Hunter as the solo reciter, and an Arabesque disc with Lynn Redgrave, both of which appear to have succumbed to the deletions axe long ago. So, too, have Hyperion and ASV discs featuring the contrasting teams of Eleanor Bron/Richard Stilgoe and Prunella Scales/Timothy West, which should appeal to their respective admirers. All of these use actors rather than musicians but provide more substantial amounts of the score. All are listed at reasonable prices second-hand on Amazon. In view of this competition, the new recording, with its unusual approach to recording balance and its restriction of items to those in the original published score, must of necessity be something of an also-ran. Remastering of the material to bring the voices into greater prominence might be decidedly beneficial.