Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

Music Webmaster
Len Mullenger:

KAROL SZYMANOWSKI (1882-1937)Król Roger (opera) (1924) Symphony No. 4 (Sinfonia Concertante) (1932).    Thomas Hampson (baritone) - King Roger, Elzbieta Szmytka (sop) - Roxana, Philip Langridge (ten) - Edrisi, Ryzsard Minkiewicz (ten) - Shepherd, Leif Ove Andsnes (piano), City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Sir Simon Rattle EMI CLASSICS CDS5-56823-2 2 CD set: [112:07] CD1(acts 1/2) [64.59]; CD2 (act 3/Sinfonia) [47.08]
Save around 22% with



This is a plush production and coming from one of the world's great record companies is a sign that Szymanowski is 'coming home'. Simon Rattle (conductor-designate of the Berliner Philharmoniker) leads a perceptive and thoroughly idiomatic performance. This parallels other EMI productions such as their imprimatur recordings of Enescu's Oedip, Roussel's Padmavati and Vaughan Williams' Pilgrim's Progress. Neither Rattle nor EMI are new to Szymanowski. They have recorded the two violin concertos (CDC5 55607-2) and the usual Stabat Mater/Symphony No. 3 coupling (CDC5 55121-2).

The plot portrays the angst of the enlightened King Roger of Sicily torn between the Apollonian and the Dionysiac. Duty and dangerous abandon.

This opera has everything apart from a dynamic plotline. The music however is all-conquering. The chorus are wonderfully secure advocates for the mystical clouds of swirling glory which plough through its pages. Pianissimo strings silkily evoke the night and saturated romance.

Some of the music attain a passionate stasis or a suggestion of Nirvana that Von Bulow had tried for in the nineteenth century but fallen far short. Hampson is, as ever, lovably impressive and secure of tone. Try him in the impassioned calls of Roxana in track 3 (CD2) Rogerze!. There is a bubbling ecstasy which leans towards models provided by Stravinsky (Firebird) and Ravel (Daphnis). Both Langridge and Minkiewicz are not, I am sorry to say, ideal. Their voices suffer from an insistent vibrato especially under pressure. Sample the Shepherd singing in Kto smie (17 CD1). Another cross-reference is Scriabin with perfumed clouds of unknowing gathering and scattering and reforming. Szmytka is heavenly in Roxana's aria (track 19 CD1).

The plush production includes many thoughtful features such as keying the booklet track list to the relevant pages in the libretto. Not so praiseworthy is EMI's continuing Neanderthal devotion to the double thickness case when a single thickness double-fold case is available and is well used by others. I know that there is a thick booklet to be accommodated. Even so it should be possible to save about half the thickness of the present volume and place the case and the booklet in a card slip-case.

The recording certainly knocks into a cocked hat the previous 1967 Polish production on Olympia minus libretto and with a butchered mono Harnasie (one of his finest works) as a coupling.

Speaking of couplings we should not forget the poised performance of the classically romantic Sinfonia Concertante for piano and orchestra. Again EMI have drawn on their top-ranking artist stable for the soloist. Andsnes gives a very lyrical account without losing touch with the urgent pulse which motivates both the first and third movements. The work spans the symphony and concerto divide. It lacks the superheated ecstatic ardour of Harnasie but its clarity gives the work an appealing 'kick'. Its opening tune has a simplicity that reminds me of a similar coup in Rachmaninov's Third Piano Concerto. The work is not totally convincing and is certainly not in the same rank as Symphony No. 3, Stabat Mater and Harnasie. However it is a strong and poetic piece; well worth your attention. There are other performances of this work. Reputedly notable among these is the Chandos disc which includes Howard Shelley and Vassili Sinaisky (does anyone have his Russian Season collection of the Sibelius tone poems?). The Fourth Symphony, given a splendid performance, is a bonus. There was room for more and it is a pity that other of Szymanowski's works were not fitted in.

Overall this is grand and utterly wonderful production - typical of EMI. It is somewhat (far from mortally) compromised by the tenor vibrato factor. Even so there is so much to enjoy. Anyone at all interested in Szymanowski, or say Frank Bridge (Enter Spring), Griffes (Pleasure Dome), Ravel or Debussy (Pelléas et Mélisande) must hear Roger. A work of moonlight and exotic stillness.


Rob Barnett

Technical note from Len Mullenger

As a bonus ,disc one  concludes with a repeat of  Roxana's aria in the concert version prepared by Szymanowski.

There are distinct acoustic differences between the opera and symphony that  has not been noted by any commentator I have read. Symphony Hall, Birmingham, has a variable acoustic achieved by opening doors to a number of differently sized resonance chambers. These can add several seconds to the reverberation time. The acoustic chosen for the opera is slightly dry (presumably the large choral forces also absorb the sound) and the enormous climaxes are beautifully projected by this recording. I was listening through B&W speakers, as used by EMI in the mastering, and felt the bass was just a little under-projected. It might have been beneficial to add a sub-woofer but it was a close call. Moving to the symphony produced an acoustic shock. Clearly all the resonance chamber doors were open (and no absorbent chorus) producing an overwhelming and boomy bass. A steep bass cut would have been introduced if the equipment being used had permitted such a thing. These things are very personal to the listener as, it would seem, is tolerance of vibrato as I was not at all disturbed by any  insistent vibrato from Langridge or Minkiewicz noted by Rob above.

Note on the Opera

This opera is not well known (or even the composer) so a brief note is in order. Szymanowski (1882-1937)  (pronounced shim-an-off-ski) was one of the bright young things in Polish music and the only really major composer to emerge after Chopin. In his teens he moved to Berlin and was active in setting up the Young Poland movement and the Young Composers publishing company in an attempt to get Polish music internationally accepted. At this time his own compositions were steeped in Brahms and Richard Strauss. Around 1910 he developed a fascination for oriental philosophy and mysticism and developed an exotic style of writing that owed more to Debussy and Scriabin than the German masters. This style can first be detected in Love Songs for Hafiz and developed in the "perfumed dreamscape" style of the first violin concerto and the Third symphony "Song of the Night" which was a setting of the thirteenth century mystic Jalal 'al-din Rumi.  These works require enormous forces and contain shattering long-held climaxes. Rattle has made successful recordings of both those works following numerous live performances. King Roger came at the tail end of this phase of composition and is equally voluptuous in style. After 1920 Szymanowski returned to the newly independent Poland and immersed himself in Polish Folksong and began writing in a new style exemplified by Harnasie (pronounced Harnasha) and the Stabat Mater. He was clearly influenced by Bartok's pioneering collection and incorporation of Hungarian folk influences in his music (see review of the Bartok album). The fourth symphony has a similar sound to a Bartok or Prokofiev piano concerto.

In 1918 Szymanowski began a homosexual novel. Ephebos, and at the same time started work on  King Roger which has homosexual overtones (although not as strong as in Britten's Death in Venice based on  Thomas Mann's novella of seven years earlier). There is virtually no action in the Opera which is why the staged concert productions by Rattle, prior to this recording, were so successful. Nevertheless Szymanowski designed it as a spectacle providing the most detailed instructions on staging.

 The opera opens in Palermo Cathedral during Mass and Christoper Palmer details the connections between Szymanowski's music and the Byzantine Mass in his BBC Music Guide to Szymanowski (ISBN  0 563 20136 3). The religious heretic, the Shepherd, is condemned by the chorus, the sage Edrisi and Queen Roxana. Roger is more leniently inclined and invites the shepherd to return later that night to explain who he is. The motives Szymanowski applies to these characters tell us it is the Shepherd who is serene and self-assured, not the ruling King.

In Act 2 the shepherd returns that night to the palace. Roxana's vocalise can be heard in the background which becomes her famous aria where she pleads for mercy on behalf of the shepherd (this famous set-piece is the sheerest seduction, glamour, enchantment. - Palmer). Roger is nervous - he senses a threat to his external power but also to his own emotions. Palmer draws a parallel here to Act 2 of Tristan - also at night - with Brangäne offstage in the Roxana role and Isolde awaiting her lover in a similar state of excitement to Roger.


My body trembles
with the trembling of the stars.
My heart of bronze trembles
today at the starlight
and, like a child
fears secret enemies!
My might reaches  no further
than my royal sword
and all beyond is a mystery,
silent stars and fear!
Edrisil! An unknown fire burns in his eyes,
a fire that turns my royal heart to ashes.
Mu heart of bronze trembles today
at the witching starlight in his eyes.

As the Shepherd enters it is clear that power resides with him and Roger, in turn, becomes antagonistic with Edrisi reminding him that he is the King and he summoned the Shepherd in order to be tried by him. Roger declares the shepherd to be a sorcerer not a prophet but he will not order his death - only his capture and he is bound in chains. The Shepherd invokes his powers and captures the court and Roxana in a magical dance, breaks his chains and leads them away, summoning King Roger to attend on him. The act ends with Roger declaring Let us follow them: the King's a pilgrim now!

In Act 3 Roger has follows the Shepherd to a ruined Greek theatre. The disheveled king enters exhausted and collapses on a block of stone burying his face in his hands. Roxana and the chorus can be heard off stage, the shepherd appears and it is now the king who is on trial. Roxana invites Roger to join her and the shepherd is revealed as Dionysus to an overwhelming orchestral climax subsiding into music for the Dawn and an ambiguous ending - will Roger submit and open himself to the Shepherd or not?.



Rob Barnett

Reviews from previous months

Reviews carry sales links
but you can also purchase

Return to Index