William Walton: Façade; Henry V Music; Coronation March "Orb and Sceptre"

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Edith Sitwell participated in three recordings of Façade, "An Entertainment," which consists of William Walton's setting of her poetry, for reciter and six instruments. The first, from 1929, conducted by the composer, captured only 11 of the poems, but this 1953 recording, her third, made for Decca, is the "complete" version. (In the 1970s, Walton created a new version, with an additional eight poems.) She is joined by Peter Pears, as the performing tradition had evolved into using two reciters, one male and one female. Sitwell's performance of the speaking part must be considered definitive; she delivers the absurd texts with imperious panache. Pears displays an astonishing virtuosity, speaking clearly yet so rapidly that the ear can barely keep up with him. The English Opera Group Ensemble, led by Anthony Collins, plays Walton's loopy score with abandon and style. The bugaboo in any performance of Façade is the balance between the speaking voices and the instrumental ensemble, and the Decca engineers get it right: the voices predominate, as they must, but the instruments sound fully present. There is some tape hum and the overall sound is a little brittle, but it's fully acceptable for a document of a historical performance. The composer conducts the Philharmonia Orchestra in a 1944 recording of scenes from Walton's soundtrack to Laurence Olivier's Henry V. In this performance, not taken directly from the soundtrack, Olivier offers narration to provide a context for the music. The sound is a little scratchy, but it's a rousing musical and dramatic performance. The album is rounded out with Malcolm Sargent conducting the London Symphony Orchestra in a sweeping reading of Orb and Scepter, the march Walton wrote for the coronation of Elizabeth II.

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