Norman Stinchcombe interviews Christopher Morley about the Walton Facade centenary CD -- and the Henry V 600th!

The story of how William Walton's 'Façade' came to be composed is as odd as the work itself but how the independent record label SOMM came to record it for a centenary celebration of its 1922 premiere is pretty odd too – involving Tubby the Tuba – as Norman Stinchcombe found out.

Walton was a musical high-flyer, entering Oxford University aged 16, but a Latin and Greek duffer who never graduated. Obscurity beckoned, but at Oxford he became acquainted with all-round aesthete Sacheverell Sitwell. He invited Walton to lodge in the Chelsea house he shared with his equally artistic brother Osbert. Eventually came the idea of a musical collaboration with their sister Edith. She would recite her avant-garde abstract poems with the 19-year-old Walton supplying the musical accompaniment. Edith, as outré as any of the characters in her book 'English Eccentrics', recited them through a hole in a painted curtain, her voice amplified by a Sengerphone (a Wagnerian megaphone) to twenty house guests. They were underwhelmed, as were the audience for the first public performance in London's Aeolian Hall in 1923. The test of time, however, has made it one of Walton's most popular works. Recordings have flourished, from Sitwell and Peter Pears as reciters in 1954, to the new SOMM disc with baritone Roderick Williams and mezzo-soprano Tamsin Dalley delivering the often tongue-twisting verses accompanied by players from the Orchestra of the Swan conducted by Bruce O'Neil.
I asked Christopher Morley, the CD's executive co-producer and writer of the excellent booklet notes, how the recording came about. "Actually it all began with Tubby the Tuba," he told me. What, as in the children's musical story Danny Kaye made famous to every child in the '50's ? Yes, that Tubby. Originally the idea was for a speech-and-music double after Morley had, "reviewed a fantastic 'Peter and the Wolf' with Lenny Henry narrating." So, Prokofiev in the first half of the disc but what on the second? "Tubby the Tuba seemed a lovely idea", said Morley, but despite efforts to set it up "it failed to materialise." But he and long-time friend and musical colleague Stephannie ("Steve") Williams, "were still sold on this idea of speech and music, and hit on Façade". Walton expert Williams, also the disc's executive producer, came up with the idea for the second half of the all-Walton disc; composer Edward Watson's chamber reduction of Walton's Henry V film score, with a speaker for Shakespeare's verse. A perfect complement to 'Façade, especially on this 600th anniversary of the Plantagenet king's death. The pair pitched the idea to Siva Oke, SOMM owner and record producer, who gave the green light.
Choosing the performers proved easy: "Steve and I homed in on Bruce O'Neil, Head of Music at the Royal Shakespeare Company. He had access to the Orchestra of the Swan, many of whose musicians also perform at the RSC," said Morley, "for 'Façade' we both wanted Roddy Williams as a reciter (we had both worked with him previously), and he suggested the amazing Tamsin Dalley. The team was complete. They all had Zoom rehearsals with Siva, which were great fun" For the Henry V piece, in which music cues adapted from the soundtrack Walton wrote for Laurence Olivier's patriotic 1944 Technicolor film are interspersed with speeches from the play, they chose Kevin Whately best know as the detective in television's long-running series 'Inspector Morse' and 'Lewis.' "Steve had used Kevin Whately on one of her Music Festivals at Sea for P&O Cruises, and he had done some tremendous excerpts from Henry V, so he was a must, and he agreed enthusiastically," he added. The recording sessions in May last year were at the Play House, Stratford, home of the Orchestra of the Swan. "Steve and I were there throughout and it was a wonderful three days," Morley added. "Siva has such a fantastic ear and concentration, and Ben Connellan, the recording engineer, is a wizard at balancing."
The SOMM recording uses twenty-one of Sitwell's poems which Williams and Dalley don't merely recite but perform, employing their full range of singing and acting skills. In the majority of them they follow Bruce O'Neil's idea of sharing the text, making them into dramatic dialogues. In 'Scotch Rhapsody', Sitwell's satire on the landed gentry's tedious obsession with hunting – "Boring to death the pheasant and the snipe" – the interjections by Williams' old buffer persona – "Another little drink wouldn't do us any harm" – are far more telling. Sitwell's verse can be dense and recondite but it's playful too and Walton leavened it with dance rhythms – the poems include 'Tango-Pasodoblé', 'Country Dance', 'Valse', 'Polka' 'Fox-Trot' and 'Tarantella', all snappily and crisply played by the OTS ensemble. It's a fun phantasmagoria – as much end-of-the-pier as avant-garde – where classical mythology collides with the commonplace, so that Nymphs, Muses, Amazons and Zeus's lovers rub shoulders with "Lily O'Grady, Silly and shady" In Henry V the intimate chamber version is ideal for home listening. We're right at the King's shoulder for his Crispin Day speech – Whately's delivery rasping and rousing – and it makes the Duke of Burgundy's lament for his war-devastated land, where Walton cunningly weaves in the 'Bailero' folk song, more touching. It all makes for a recording that will give listeners much pleasure for years to come.
Norman Stinchcombe

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