Walton’s “Façade” In A Lively New Reading

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WALTON: Façade / Carole Boyd, Zeb Soanes, reciters; Ensemble directed by John Wilson / 1955 BBC Home Service interview with Dame Edith Sitwell / Orchid Classics ORC100067

Sometimes art can be fun, but only when the creators of that art are 1) immensely talented (not a prerequisite nowadays) and 2) see eye-to-eye on what it is they’re creating. Such was the case with Façade, an “entertainment” concocted in 1921 by 19-year-old composer William Walton and 34-year-old poet Edith Sitwell.

When you listen to Façade for the first time, you’re not really quite sure what’s going on. Some of the lines of poetry make sense, sometimes an entire poem makes sense, but most of the time it’s just nonsense rhymes. You also can’t quite figure out of the music was written to fit the words or vice-versa. But perhaps most of all, it’s hard to fathom how the hell this thing came about in the first place.

Actually, Edith Sitwell, part of a remarkably eccentric British family with her equally off-center brothers Osbert and Sacheverell, had been writing and publishing the nonsense poems later used in Façade as early as 1918. Somehow or other, she got the teenage Walton interested in setting 21 of them to music, the plan being to have two recitants shout the poems out through megaphones (microphones then being in their infancy and not available for home use) from behind a curtain while the band played. A trial performance was given at the Sitwell home in January 1922. The first public performance was given at Aeolian Hall in London in June 1923. Neither audiences nor critics knew what to make of it; half the time they couldn’t even understand a single word being yelled through the megaphones. One commentator said that Sitwell should be “shut up somewhere,” evidently referring to an insane asylum.

Facade 1921

Edith Sitwell, right, and an unidentified reciter, here using a highway traffic cone in place of a megaphone!

And yet the score was sufficiently attractive and colorful—using a small ensemble based on then-current jazz bands, and employing rhythms borrowed from early jazz—that it stayed in people’s minds and slowly but surely came to be understood…once the reciters spoke the poems through microphones, and particularly when it was finally recorded in December 1929. That first recording featured recitation by Sitwell and Constant Lambert, with the small orchestra conducted by Walton himself.

Alas, the coming of the Depression somehow pushed poor Façade to the side. Sitwell made another recording of it in 1947, reciting all the poems herself. In 1954 Sitwell and famous English tenor Peter Pears were the reciters in a famous Decca recording conducted by Anthony Collins. This has since been considered the “classic” Façade recording, the benchmark by which all others are judged.

But then came the 1960s, the Hippie Era, and “Happenings” of the kind that spawned Façade were again popular. In 1965 the American Decca label released a splendid recording of the work narrated by actress Hermione Gingold and countertenor Russell Oberlin. Thomas Dunn provided sparkling accompaniment, surely the best since Walton’s own original recording. Two years later, in English, we got the very first performance of the work by legitimate jazz musicians. Johnny Dankworth’s jazz band played the music with the recitation by his wife, Cleo Laine, and fellow jazz singer Annie Ross. Both recordings helped revive interest in the work. In the 1970s there were several other recordings, including one by eccentric mezzo-soprano Cathy Berberian with conductor Giorgio Bernasconi and a very famous one by Tony Randall and Arthur Fiedler. A great deal of publicity and hubbub pushed the latter recording, but I’ve never liked it because Randall just shouted all the poems at the top of his lungs. Granted, this is how it probably sounded in its original incarnation, but more than a half-century had made listeners accustomed to subtler and more relaxed readings.

A problem arises when reading the poems aloud, because Edith Sitwell made it clear that she wanted them read without inflection and without a hint of their being “sung” on specific pitches. I mention this because three of the legitimate singers who recorded it, Pears, Oberlin and Berberian, did indeed give the suggestion of carrying over certain words on the beat with a singer’s legato, and with both Gingold and Laine (the latter also an actress in addition to being a singer) there was indeed a certain amount of interpretation given to the readings. But as I’ve pointed out many times in the course of this blog, performance practices change with time. We no longer sing French opera or chanson with zero interpretation, and we no longer perform Façade like that, either.

The present recording starts out a bit stiffly—both the “Fanfare” and the opening poem, “Hornpipe,” are a bit self-conscious to my ears—but as soon as Carole Boyd enters near the end of the latter, she loosens things up and from then on, the performance is an utter and complete delight.

Wait…did I just say that Carole Boyd “enters near the end” of a poem? Indeed I did, and this is the novelty of this recorded performance. Both reciters not only split the poems but more often than not perform together on most of them. Boyd speaks the lines attributed to a girl or a woman while Soanes speaks the lines attributed to a man. Sometimes, as in “Old Sir Faulk,” they seem to be splitting the poem up just for the fun of it. Between the two of them, Boyd is surely having the most fun. In fact, I can’t recall a female reciter giving such a loose, relaxed performance since Laine and Ross. She absolutely revels in the swaggering rhythms, and in doing so she pulls Soanes and conductor John Wilson along with her.

Yet the real treasure of this issue is the inclusion of the seldom-heard 1955 radio interview that Sitwell gave with Lionel Hale, Margaret Lane and Paul Dehn. Edith talks about her creative work, her eccentric appearance (“It’s completely natural, the way the skin of the panther is natural,” saying that her ornate brocaded clothing and huge rings were “the way I was born”) and other such topics. One thing you had to say about all the Sitwells, they loved being the centers of attention! Edith comes across as the kind of person who seemed to be a fun person to know on the surface, but underneath was a rather prickly personality.

Before closing out this review, I should mention that a sequel, Façade 2, was created from the poems and music they collaborated on in 1921-22 but not used in the original entertainment or its definitive score edition in 1951 (they first appeared in Walton’s 1975 Façade Revisited and then as Façade 2). This hasn’t been performed much at all, although Susana Walton, Richard Baker and the City of London Sinfonia conducted by Richard Hickox recorded it along with the original Façade. Neither the music nor the poems are nearly as memorable, but there are some gems in there. All in all, I really loved this recording for its spirit, its unusual approach, and especially for Edith’s interview.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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