A Centennial Celebration (Orchestra of the Swan, Bruce O’Neil)
Listening to it today, it’s hard to believe that William Walton (1902-1983) was only 19 when he composed Facade, this dazzling living room composition of classical music, jazz and popular song unfolded within the framework of the eccentric and self-conscious poetry of Edith Sitwell. Baptized “A Centenary Celebration”, this new recording commemorates the premiere of the work which took place on January 24, 1922. Installed in the living room of the house of Osbert Sitwell in Chelsea, an audience of about twenty scholars listened Edith declaim it. verses through the hole in a specially designed curtain using a Sengerphone – a high-end megaphone invented by Hugo von Senger in 1876 to amplify the dragon’s voice at the premiere of the Ring Cycle.
Walton himself led an ensemble of four on this occasion, although here it is played by the more familiar formation of flute (doubling piccolo), clarinet (doubling bass clarinet), alto saxophone, trumpet, percussion and cello. Famously, Sitwell herself offered little literary interpretation beyond her unique paint-stripping voice. Many have tackled the job since – usually working in pairs – including actors like Peggy Ashcroft and Jeremy Irons, tenor Peter Pears, newsreader Richard Baker and Walton’s widow, Susana. When it comes to “playing” through the text, I confess a sneaky fondness for Timothy West and Prunella Scales (although Sitwell might be rolling in his grave at the accents!).
Here, Somm took a kick out of a pair of vocalists — a breed not always known for their way with spoken text, but pretty much guaranteed to nail the tricky beats and tough crackle sections. In fact, baritone Roderick Williams and mezzo Tamsin Dalley are terrific, delivering detailed and entertaining renditions with precise diction and plenty of good humor. Dalley is wonderful for spinning long lines of Spanish influence Long Steel Grass, her suitably glass-cut accent when she wants it but never mannered. The tongue twisters of Tango-Pasodoble have no terror for her, with Williams interjecting with cheeky Spanish-accented interjections. Together they extract gothic horror from Ms Black Behemoth and extract every ounce of comedy from the charming country dance. Bruce O’Neil conducting an Orchestra of the Swan ensemble is quite idiomatic.
The other work here is a version of Walton’s moving music for Shakespeare’s Olivier’s war film Henry V. In 1990, Christopher Palmer devised a scenario for narrator and full symphony orchestra which tells the story of the play through its various characters interspersed or sometimes underlined by Walton’s music. Here, this music is performed in Edward Watson’s 1992 reduction of Palmer’s original.
Again, the nimble acting and pacing is excellent, with experienced actor Kevin Whately making an excellent narrator. Unlike Christopher Plummer’s grandiose, virtuoso manner in Chandos’ recording of Palmer’s work, Whately is more your Everyman – quite appropriate for a work that’s as much about ordinary soldiers as it is about kings and crowns. The reduction works particularly well for music accompanying the action in the playhouse itself – Shakespeare’s famous “Wooden O” – as well as for early pub scenes and lighter episodes at the French court. It’s only in the thick of it at Agincourt that you miss the Technicolor excesses of the big orchestra, and just barely.
Somm is to be commended for a very engaging hour in the company of the genius that was William Walton.
Composer: William Walton
Works: Façade, Music of Henri V
Performers: Roderick WilliamsTamsin DalleyKevin WhatelySwan Orchestra, Bruce O’Neil
Label: Sum SOMMCD 277