Sir William Walton (1902-1983)
Fašade II (1979)
Fašade: additional numbers (1922, 1977)
Hila Plitmann, Fred Child, Kevin Deas (narrators)
Virginia Arts Festival Chamber Players/JoAnn Falletta
rec. 2021, Joan and Macon Brock Theatre, Virginia Wesleyan University, Norfolk, USA
First recordings (additional numbers)
NAXOS 8.574378 
Reviewers (and listeners) wax lyrically over the relative merits of the various editions of Bruckner symphonies, but as an inveterate reviser of his own work the Austrian pales into insignificance in comparison with William Walton, to whom at times it appears that the mere prospect of a performance or revival of one of his pieces was quite capable of sparking off a process of amendment, cutting and substitution. And what is probably his best-known work, the collection known as Fašade, suffered more than any other of his scores from this process. Indeed, after the first private and public performances in the early 1920s, Walton continually removed some items and replaced others, only reaching a final selection in 1942 which was then used as the basis for publication in 1951 and the first complete recording in 1954. But that was by no means the end of the matter. Although the ‘final’ 1951 version remained unchanged (and oddly enough nobody since has seen fit to reduce it to extracts over and above the substantially re-worked orchestral suites), Walton returned to the original material in 1977 at the invitation of his publisher who asked him to furnish a second cycle of pieces from the items rejected from the original 1920s score. Walton did so, only then to again change his mind, removing three items from the so-called Fašade II and substituting others when the latter score was finally published in 1979. Since then most recordings of Fašade have tended to couple the two sets together, although as recently as 2017 an Orchid Classics recording under John Wilson which I reviewed for these pages jettisoned Fašade II in favour of the inclusion of an interview with Dame Edith Sitwell as the original librettist. There was also an attempt by Pamela Hunter to provide a more complete Fašade including the items excised both in the 1920s and 1970s, including where necessary a recording of Sitwell’s original poetry when the music (if any) had not survived. But this Naxos CD appears to be the first attempt to provide a complete Fašade restricted entirely to Walton’s music, including three items initially included (and then removed) from Fašade II as well as one which has not apparently been heard since the 1920s. Those four tracks claim to be first recorded performances of the items in this form; although all four were included on the 1993 Hunter disc, I am not sure whether that included the music as well as the text.
Quite apart from the matter of precisely what music constitutes a complete Fašade, we also have to consider the forces for which the music is written. Walton specifies a small chamber ensemble and a spoken voice, but does not specify either the sex of the narrator nor whether there are to be more than one of them. In performances in the 1920s there seems to have been established a tradition of having two speakers, one female (usually Dame Edith herself) and one male, but at no point in the score does Walton specify who actually does what. One 1967 recording, featuring Cleo Laine and Annie Ross, features two female speakers; and Hunter’s 1993 version which includes the spoken poems makes do with one throughout, as does Lynne Redgrave’s of 2008 (which however excludes the four additional tracks given here). Another version, also including spoken poems, has the normal two, in this case the married couple Prunella Scales and Timothy West. There are a whole variety of accents, as well. The speakers in the 1954 version were Dame Edith and Peter Pears, both sounding quaintly old-fashioned by modern standards (review); Walton in 1972 followed the same tradition with a pair of classically trained actors in the shape of Peggy Ashcroft and Paul Scofield (review). At around the same time, Fenella Fielding and Michael Flanders introduced the idea of comically inflected regional accents to some of the poems, and the idea of splitting the delivery of individual poems between more than one speaker has also become well established. What all this means is not only that there is no uniformity of approach between any of the many performances on disc; every one of them in unique in some respect or another, and there is no established tradition which can be regarded as being peculiarly authentic.
This means that the current version, with three American speakers, certainly cannot be regarded in any way as a break with performing tradition. Indeed the well-modulated tones of the singers Hila Plitmann and Kevin Deas betray no sense of obviously trans-Atlantic accents, and certainly less exoticism than Lady Susanna Walton in the version she recorded after her husband’s death. Indeed it is clear that great care has been taken with the exact delivery of the lines in an attempt to convey the often complex internal rhyme schemes of Sitwell’s poetry. In the celebrated Tango-Pasadoble [track 7] Fred Child (famous in America as a broadcaster) ensures that each of the words “vanilla”, “Sevilla” and “mantilla” are pronounced with a Spanish double-L – “vaneeya, Seveeya, manteeya” – to clarify Sitwell’s subtle interplay of words. On the other hand Hila Plitmann in Four in the morning [track 15] allows herself to be misled into an attempt to supply a rhyme in the phrase “allegro negro cocktail shaker”, pronouncing “negro” with a short e that simply sounds precious (although it is admittedly hard to see what actual sound Sitwell intended to effect with the assonance). In the 1954 recording in which Sitwell herself participated, she seems to have accepted Peter Pears’s decidedly English double-L at all its occurrences in the Tango-Pasadoble; in Four in the morning we are given the decidedly odd-sounding combination “all-ay-grow nee-gro” which actually ruins the intended assonance altogether. On the other hand, maybe she never heard the Pears tracks at all once she had recorded her own.
What the 1954 recording did establish was the desirability of bring the speakers close to the microphone in order to make the delivery of the words as clear as possible. This presumably resulted from experiences in earlier live performances when the poems had to be declaimed through a megaphone, with often hilarious results which were not always effective. Most recordings since have followed that precedent to a greater or a lesser degree, although the recent Orchid disc which I reviewed allowed the voices to recede into the resonant general acoustic with a fatal result to audibility. Here the voices seem to be treated somewhat differently; the two singers, Hila Plitmann and Kevin Deas, are given a more backward and resonant sound while Fred Child appears to be closer to the microphone. This does not help Ms Plitmann, whose gentler tones tend to recede behind the instruments to the detriment of clarity. On the other hand Naxos score immeasurable points in supplying listeners with the complete Sitwell texts (with a couple of minor misprints which hardly detract from this). Even with the clearest diction in the world it is often impossible for audiences to grasp the hidden meanings in the poems, let alone their delightfully felicitous rhyme-schemes, without the words actually in front of them. In the case of the previously suppressed numbers, this is of course all the more essential; one, Springing Jack, which was included in the Hunter disc, is missing here. Small talk, with its charming vision of Sitwell herself “cross and white as chalk” listening to the conversation, means nothing without this sort of minutely described observation. And precisely why Walton should have removed The last galop from his published versions of the score must remain a mystery. It forms a marvellous conclusion to this disc.
The playing of the instrumentalists under JoAnn Falletta is exceptionally clear both in manner and recorded sound, Timothy McAllister’s oily saxophone in particular conjuring up the jazz elements that underlay Walton’s original inspirations. For the four additional numbers, this recording is a must for all Waltonians; and as a representation of the two published scores it can stand comparison with all the many alternatives in the catalogue. When I reviewed the Orchid recording back in 2017 I noted that many of the earlier recordings had succumbed to the deletions axe; some of those I have mentioned still appear to be unavailable. For the reasons stated, it is quite impossible to recommend any particular version over the others; I personally still love the apparently-deleted Michael Flanders and Fenella Fielding version, while recognising that Sitwell herself (despite her occasional fluffs of delivery) has a unique style of period delivery that could not nowadays be imitated (and Pears can deliver his cadenza in the Tango-Pasadoble at a speed that simply defies all competition). Those who know Fašade only through the orchestral concert suites will certainly find this a recording that gives enormous satisfaction, and the provision of the texts is a very real bonus, complete with the caution that “Edith Sitwell’s poems include some outdated words and ideas that some listeners may find offensive.” The booklet also supplies us with complete biographies of all the performers, and a very useful and comprehensive note on the musical evolution of the score by Paul Conway. The cover portrait of the young Sitwell is a vast improvement on the antique eccentric we usually see.
Paul Corfield Godfrey
Published: October 13, 2022