Edith Sitwell / Lord Berners / William Walton

Follies and Facades

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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, and this album gathers the first and third of them. The first, from 1929, conducted by the composer, captured only 11 of the poems, but the 1953 recording, made for Decca, is the "complete" version. (In the 1970s, Walton created a new version, with an additional eight poems.) The early version, made just seven years after the first public performance, is a valuable record of the work's early performance history, and is highly entertaining, besides. Composer and conductor Constant Lambert joins Sitwell in the recitations, and Walton conducts an unnamed chamber orchestra. Sitwell's performances of the speaking part must be considered definitive; she delivers the absurd texts with imperious panache. Her two performances are not strongly dissimilar, but the subtle differences offer the pleasure of comparing the varied eccentricities of her delivery. Walton's accompaniment heightens the absurdity and silliness of the musical juxtapositions more than Anthony Collins in the later version. Peter Pears displays an astonishing virtuosity in the later recording, speaking clearly yet so rapidly that the ear can barely keep up with him. In the newer version, Collins leads the English Opera Group Ensemble, playing Walton's score with abandon and style, but he doesn't quite match the loopiness of the composer's reading. The bugaboo in any performance of Façade is the balance between the speaking voices and the instrumental ensemble, and the engineers in both recordings get it right; the voices predominate, as they must, but the instruments sound fully present. The 1929 performance has some static, but is surprisingly clean for a recording of its era. In the 1953 version, there is some tape hum and the overall sound is a little brittle and a little distant, so it may require boosting the volume, but it's acceptable for a document of a historical performance.

The album is filled with a polished 1952 performance of the suite from Lord Berners' 1926 ballet The Triumph of Neptune, with Thomas Beecham conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra. It's a clever and charming work with a Holstian hardiness married to a Gallic wit reminiscent of Milhaud. Overall it's fairly conventional, but it has moments that display the composer's characteristic eccentricity. This may be the first orchestral piece that requires the players to vocalize, in this case whooping and shrieking in falsetto, along with some unfortunate instrumentalist warbling "The Last Rose of Summer"; it would have been entertaining to be a fly on the wall at the performance, to witness the reaction of the Philadelphia audience. The sound is clean, but shallow.

Track Listing

Sample Title/Composer Performer Time
Façade, for reciter & ensemble
1 01:44
2 03:04
3 00:41
4 01:59
5 02:17
6 01:49
7 01:30
8 00:57
9 01:14
10 01:23
11 01:42
12 01:47
13 01:26
14 02:37
15 00:58
16 03:02
17 02:29
18 01:14
19 01:55
20 01:59
21 01:03
22 00:54
23 02:20
24 01:02
25 01:09
26 01:37
27 01:29
28 01:46
29 01:20
30 01:13
31 02:40
32 01:55
Triumph of Neptune, ballet
33 01:21
34 02:02
35 02:22
36 03:38
37 01:56
38 03:17
39 01:40
40 05:39
41 02:45
blue highlight denotes track pick