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Karol SZYMANOWSKI (1882-1937)
King Roger - opera in three acts Op. 46 (1918-24)
Libretto: Jaroslaw Iwaskiewicz, composer
Roger II, King of Sicily - Wojtek Drabowicz (bar)
Roxana - Olga Pasiecznik (sop)
Edrisi, Arab Sage - Krzystof Szmyt (ten)
Shepherd - Piotr Beczala (ten)
Archbishop - Romuald Tesarowicz (bass)
Deaconess - Stefania Toczyska (mezzo)
All Polacca Youth Choir/Sabina Wlodarska
Chorus and Orchestra of Polish National Opera/Jacek Kaspszyk
rec. Teatr Wielki - Opera Narodowa, Warszawa, 27-29 Jan 2003. DDD
CD ACCORD ACD 131-2 [79.11]

The recorded history of Szymanowski's pre-eminent opera (the other one is his Straussian shocker Hagith - a Salome ‘look-alike’) has not exactly been thronged with versions. It has however done better than other 20th century ‘one-offs’ such as Enescu's Oedip (2 versions EMI and a Roumanian Electrecord LP set) or Bloch's Macbeth (2 versions, both recentish, Capriccio and Actes-Sud).

In writing this review I have had access to the following sets:-
Roger - Andrzej Hiolski (bar)
Roxana - Hanna Rumowska (sop)
Shepherd - Kazimierz Pustelak (ten)
Teatr Wielki/Mieczyslaw Mierzejewski
Sept 1965
c/w Harnasie - extracts
Olympia OCD 303 [80:56]

Roger - Florian Skulski (bar)
Roxana - Barbara Zagorzanka (sop)
Shepherd - Stanislaw Kowalski (ten)
Teatr Wielki/Robert Satanowski
c/w none
Koch-Schwann Musica Mundi CD 314 014 K2 [80:11]

Roger - Andrzej Hiolski (bar)
Roxana - Barbara Zagorzanka (sop)
Shepherd - Wieslaw Ochman (ten)
Polish State Philharmonic/Karol Stryja
April 1990
c/w Prince Potemkin
Naxos 8.660062-63 [83:23]

Roger - Robert Hampson (bar)
Roxana - Elzbieta Smytka (sop)
Shepherd - Ryszard Minkiewicz (ten)
City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus and Orchestra/Simon Rattle
July 1998
c/w Symphony No. 4
EMI Classics 7243 5 56823 2 1 [82.40 + appendix - Roxana's aria with concert ending: 4.50]

The AAD Mierzejewski on Olympia was long ago deleted but it still sounds splendidly atmospheric, clear yet not so analytical that it eliminates the mystery. Sadly it is allocated only one track per Act and is split across two CDs - the norm. Regrettably it is coupled with Wodiczko's mangled and much cut Harnasie. No libretto provided.

The Koch-Schwann is accommodated in a double-width case and is without a coupling. It has a good booklet with full libretto and parallel translations. Satanowski is a practised Szymanowski ‘hand’, as we know from his recording conducting the Second Violin Concerto and also the orchestral songs. However his Roxana is much taken with a spoiling Slavonic wobble. Unaccountably that recording too uses two CDs and is pretty tight-fisted with tracking: once again one track per act.

Rattle (EMI), predictably has superb documentation. He also offers the additional alternative concert version of the Roxana aria. Stryja (Naxos) shares with Rattle generous multiple tracking within the Acts. Stryja has 28 tracks and Rattle 25; 26 if you add in the alternative concert version of Roxana's aria.

Few people will make the choice based on couplings. However Rattle offers the most substantial additional work in the shape of Leif Ove Andsnes’s Symphonie Concertante. Even then the total playing time for the two CDs is circa 113 minutes, well short of the 160 minutes of music that could have been accommodated there.

The Naxos (Stryja) has the full sung libretto but only in Polish. There is a detailed English synopsis and notes though. It's also in a space-saving single-width double CD case.

CD Accord's solution is the most elegant so far. The whole opera goes onto one well packed CD. In fact it's the only single disc version of the opera; the first ever. Documentation is exemplary as is track allocation: 25 tracks. For the Szymanowski collector wanting King Roger, and only King Roger, the CD Accord is a natural choice. This set also includes a strikingly vivid colour drawing of Szymanowski by Stanislaw Witkiewicz.

Of course all of these discs (when you can find them; some have been deleted) are at full price apart from the Naxos which is a double at bargain price level. The CD Accord is at more than full price at £21.00 (GB) but then the opera is on just a single packed disc with none of the token fillerism that afflicts some of other discs.

Kaspszyk's cast is strong. You need only listen to Pasiecznik as his Roxana at 2.34 (tr.3) as she effortlessly floats her notes upwards. This carries over into the occasionally extracted Roxana's Song at tr.10 where Roger’s queen, in ethereally high melisma, invokes the King's mercy towards the Dionysian Shepherd. OK, so this music owes something to Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov but there is an undenioably original nirvana of otherworldliness as well. Kaspszyk knows the ecstatic shimmer of the writing as well as its volatile urgency (tr. 11 at the start). He also articulates its mercurial excitability and his orchestra and chorus are with him all the way. I am looking forward to hearing this conductor's Symphony No. 3 and Stabat Mater. Drabowicz's Roger has a touch of the admirable John Shirley-Quirk in his voice - a dark tightness in the throat. In tr. 12 there is an example of his indebtedness to Stravinsky's Firebird (again at end of tr. 14 ‘The secret depths of life's passion’) but this is momentary. Soon writing of smashing individuality enters with an emphatic blast. The whirling dance of the passions at tr. 15 draws Roxana in and Roger turns away in despair as the bewitching Shepherd works his overwrought magic on Roxana. The boiling climax of the wild dance recalls Ravel's Bolero and the Brigands dance of abandon in Szymanowski’s own Harnasie. The King is like Dalua in Boughton's Immortal Hour when he calls out in despair ‘My dreams, give me my dreams’. His queen is already in thrall to this mesmerising godlike Rasputin of a shepherd. At the end the King finally succumbs to the all-conquering pagan force of the shepherd and the sun. The plot-line does not have twists and turns. The piece is an exercise in the tension that goes between duty and seductive ideas.

The Satanowski set does not have the transparency or upfront impact of the Kaspszyk. While the EMI is superbly recorded, and perhaps a little less crowdedly up-front than the CD Accord, Hampson has more vibrato than Kaspzyk's Roger. Mierzejewski has Hiolski's grainy and magnificently tawny baritone in faintly hissy analogue. Stryja on Naxos also has a by then older Hiolski still sounding fit but straining now; though in better sound than in 1965. In this most ecstatic, perfumed and spiritual of operas - almost a series tableaux about belief and sensuality - Mierzejewski is outstanding and sounds much better than I had remembered. The Stryja is good although it has no translation - just a very full track-keyed synopsis. It has Hiolski (who still sounds the business). The voices are recorded very forward of the orchestra but at Naxos price this good. If you are a Szymanowski completist you will have to have the Naxos anyway as it’s the only way to get the 10 minute Potemkin music. If you see the fabled Mierzejewski (Olympia or possibly on other labels) snap it up without delay. However Kaspszyk takes the laurels for the most modern sound in a performance evidently fully in sympathy with Szymanowski's testament to the tension between duty and delight; ultimately to the primacy of delight.

Rob Barnett

The CDAccord Catalogue

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