Melinda Bargreen | 10 AUG 2022
Very few musical compositions truly deserve that overworked adjective “unique,” but it accurately applies to William Walton’s Façade.”] Or perhaps we should call this mostly-early work Façades, as it is recorded here in three parts: “Façade – An Entertainment” (21 pieces dating from 1922); “Façade 2 – A Further Entertainment” (8 more pieces; 1978-79); and the four pieces of “Façade: Additional Numbers” (1922, 1977).
These brief and colorful pieces are spoken settings of engaging, often witty, and sometimes goofy poems by Edith Sitwell, and they belong to a genre that’s all their own. The Façade pieces exist in many versions, adaptations, and revisions. The youthful Walton set the spoken poems for narrator – three speakers are featured here – over a small and colorful chamber ensemble. The poems are declaimed (in exact rhythm with the music) and not sung.
In these precisely timed performances, the narrators include operatic soprano Hila Plitmann, radio host Fred Child, and bass-baritone Kevin Deas. All are excellent, exhibiting their own personal styles but always with the words exactly aligned to the music. (Not surprisingly, the two singers – Plitmann and Deas – tend slightly toward pitched speech; Child’s narration is less attentive to the musical background but still admirably effective.) All three speakers are beautifully clear and extremely expressive; you won’t miss a syllable, no matter how speedily the music goes on “mumbling, rumbling. and tumbling” (as one of the poems puts it).
The Façade spoken texts are nimbly accompanied here by the virtuosic Virginia Arts Festival Chamber Orchestra with the excellent JoAnn Falletta conducting. The precision of the words’ alignment with the notes is phenomenal. So is the clarity with which all the words are enunciated – or trilled, declaimed, drawled, suavely whispered, or exhorted. Each of the three performers puts a unique stamp on the respective movements, with a wide array of tonal variety and interpretive finesse. This disc represents what may well be considered the “last word” on Façade; some of the music heard here has not been previously recorded.
From the cheeky energy of the opening fanfare, full of brio and clarion brass, to the “Last Galop” (in which we hear that “The world’s floors are quaking, crumbling and breaking”), this is one of the most vividly pictorial chamber works one could encounter.
The original Façade was premiered in 1922 at the Sitwells’ house, with Edith Sitwell doing the reciting and Walton the conducting. (How we might wish to be a fly on the wall at that event!) With a number of changes in the musical lineup – four numbers were discarded, 16 more were added – a 1923 public performance at the Aeolian Hall by the same artists was met with a mixed reception: the headline in the Daily Graphic read “Drivel They Paid to Hear.” Ouch!
And this headline leads us to one issue (for this listener, at least) with the complete Façade: the tendency of its narration toward the “twee” (definition: “Excessively or affectedly quaint, pretty, or sentimental”). In some places overly grandiose and coy, the narrative can sound to non-British ears – perhaps even to some British ears? – like too much trilling sing-song. There is a fine line between the “well-wrought” and the “overwrought.”
The work was subsequently revised and refined over time, with some pieces added and others discarded. In 1979, when Walton celebrated his 75th birthday, he revisited Façade by setting eight more poems, creating what is now referred to as Façade 2.
In the liner notes for this new recording in our more careful times, there is the following note to listeners: “Edith Sitwell’s poems include some outdated words and ideas that some listeners may find offensive.” The same might be true for almost any earlier work employing words and music (opera, operetta, oratorio, songs, and probably even certain hymns), but these days have taught us all to be more culturally aware – and more cautious. ■
- JoAnn Falletta: joannfalletta.com
- Virginia Arts Festival: vafest.org
- Hila Plitmann: hilaplitmann.com
- Fred Child: yourclassical.org/profile/fred-child
- Kevin Deas: dispeker.com/artists/kevin-deas