The special challenges of recording Walton's Façade

Andrew KeenerFri 31st March 2017

Producer Andrew Keener introduces his new recording, featuring John Wilson, Zeb Soanes and Carole Boyd

The idea of casting a recording of Walton’s Façade, with an Archers – and a BBC Radio 4 – friendly audience in mind, had been bubbling in the back of my mind for quite a few years. With Carole Boyd (Lynda Snell in The Archers) and Zeb Soanes (newsreader and presenter), we have on this recording two of the loveliest, most characterful voices on British radio. The rehearsals in the weeks leading up to the recording were as much fun as the sessions themselves. With our friend Peter Crockford playing the piano for Zeb and Carole in his studio, and Carole’s friend Nicola Bibby keeping our narrators on the straight and narrow in matters of vocal production, I put in my two-penn’orth as musical/rhythmic fascist. So Zeb and Carole were well prepared for sessions that were intensive and uncompromising...but a lot of fun.

It’s too easy to underestimate the difficulties of Façade. Walton notates the speech rhythms of Sitwell’s poems with unambiguous precision, and I hope that our recording is not only up there with the most vivid, spontaneous-sounding and amusing versions, but more accurate than most. I think that goes for the sparky playing of John Wilson’s players too. Drawn from his marvellous orchestra, the players had a ball at the sessions, and it shows.

Getting a credible balance when recording Façade has always been a tough call: the words have to be clear without giving the impression that the reciters are in a separate acoustic from the players. I wish that the engineer’s set-up was still available for the old mono Decca Pears/Sitwell recording. That one really got it right. We put the narrators at a significant distance from the players – as much as possible in fact – behind John Wilson. Even that was a balancing act, so to speak. Any further distance and people would, understandably, have complained that they couldn't hear each other, but any closer and the reciters’ microphones would pick up too much detail from the players, covering the text.

I did entertain the idea of recording the music, then overdubbing the narrators later. Reflecting on that option now, I see it would have been disastrous. Façade is taxing enough for the narrators as it is and getting the notated rhythms spot on is already a challenge (Dame Felicity Palmer, who does a great Façade, says that you underestimate its difficulties at your peril). So many other versions, including Sitwell's own rendition, are pretty approximate rhythmically and to have the music pre-recorded only to find then that the tempi were impracticable for the narrators – at their separate session weeks later – would have been awkward to say the least.

But it is not only for this reason that I think everyone needs to be in the same venue at the same time. When everyone is together there is a delightful sense of human interaction, which I hope comes through on this recording.

Then, of course, we have the timbre of the voices themselves. I wanted to capture these familiar voices in a way that was tactile and clear to the audience, to capture the instant familiarity that listeners get when they switch on BBC Radio 4 – or any other of the many projects in which Zeb and Carole are involved. Simon Eadon, who engineered the sessions, chose the Neumann KM184 microphones for the narrators because of their crispness and clarity, which is essential in capturing all the nuances of the reciters’ delivery.

All that being said, I think a lot of the energy and vitality of the recording is simply because we had players, a conductor and two voices who were having a great time and were enjoying each other’s company. Good pacing with people’s energies in mind is essential at a recording session. We didn’t record the pieces in order, partly because Carole was unavailable for part of the first day, and partly because I felt that some of the more dexterous verbal acrobatics would indeed be easier when Carole and Zeb were fresh. Even then, I patronisingly reckoned without their consummate professionalism. The rapid-fire 'Thetis wrote a treatise' in the Tango-Pasodoble – which all Façade narrators dread – was flawlessly nailed by Carole in the first take and in all three subsequent takes of that number. Truly 'mocking time that flies' as Sitwell herself almosts says in Through Gilded Trellises.

Walton's Façade, released on Orchid Classics, will be available in record stores and online in April 2017. Pre-order at Amazon

Andrew Keener

Andrew Keener is a multi-award-winning producer of more than 900 recordings

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