Quite a week for the Orchestra of the Swan: this is our second post, after the webstream of Labyrinths. Now, we head over to the redoubtable Somm Recordings for Sir William Walton – A Centenary Celebration, a disc which marks the 100th anniversary of the first performance of Edith Sitwell’s era-defining “entertainment” Façade, coupled with its composer’s thrilling score for Laurence Olivier’s 1944 film version of Shakespeare’s Henry V, on the 600th anniversary of the medieval warrior-king’s death.
Baritone and SOMM artist Roderick Williams pairs with mezzo-soprano Tamsin Dalley for a joyful partnership in Façade, while star of television’s Auf Wiedersehen, Pet, Inspector Morse and Lewis, Kevin Whately is the narrator for Henry V. Stratford-based Orchestra of The Swan is conducted by the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Head of Music, Bruce O’Neil.
Walton's settings of Edith Sitwell's highly individual poetry is magical, and it is hard to imagine two finer vocal protagonists than Roderick Williams and Tamsin Daley. This is, they seem to be saying, England's equivalent to Schoenbergian Sprechstimme; Façade becomes Walton's Pierrot Lunaire (there are many parallels between the two works).
As booklet notes go, Christopher Morley's are ideal - detailed, engaging, informative. His tracing of "a long line of whimsy in English literature, traceable at least from Jonathan Swift, continuing on through Lawrence Sterne and Tobias Smolett, and achieving spectacular manifestations in the work fo Edward Lear abnd most notably Lewis Carroll" is brilliant - and the path leads to Edith Sitwell's English Eccentrics (1933) and on to Monty Python and the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club.
The "Tango-Pasadoblé" seems to sum up everything thet is good in this recording: the voices, the slinkiness of the evocation of Seville, the continuous underlying wit:
... while "Something lies behind the scene" is the epitome of 1920s:
The sheer joy of the players is viscerally communicated, as is the fun the reciters had.
The shift to the world of Henry V is stark: faux-early music conjures up the atmosphere of the film perfectly - the music was commissioned by Laurence Olivier's film of Shakespeare's play. All the better then to have such an expert actor as Kevin Whately, declaiming Shakespeare's hallowed text with gusto as well as expertise.
We hear this piece in Edward Watson's version for narator and small orchestra. Listen to the way Walton conjures up the period in the opening March:
In this score, we hear references to Stravinsky in its acidic edge But is there anything more affecting than the most famous umber, "Touch her soft lips and part"?. And listen, now, to the pageantry of "Agincourt":
.. or the sheer drama of "Harfleur:
I was present at the recording sessions of Henry V in Stratfrod-upon-Avon, and can attest to how stunningly accurate the recording is - we really do hear the exultation of the trumpet, the playfulness of the bassoon and woodwind, but we also hear how Walton paints the more touching moments impeccably. The "Falstaff Rejection" is delivered so brilliantly by Whately, his "God save thy Grace, King Hal" (Falstaff's line) an emotional punch in the gut:
Walton's underlying dirge is so tender there. And how Whately goes for it in the most famous speech, "Once more unto the breach, dear friends" (Harfleur):
Listen, too, to the French pastoral lands calling to us in "Alas, she hath from France too long been chas'd" - many will recognise the theme ("Baïlero") from Canteloube's Chants d'Auvergne:
To cap it all, the disc is nearly 81 monutes in duration (one hour 21 minutes): astonishing value for money. The recording is spectacularly clear and present thanks to the formidable combination of producer Siva Oke and engineer Ben Connellan.
This is an inspired coupling, spectacularly realised. It was a privilege to be present for the recording; the end result is a remarkably fine disc to cherish.