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
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.
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
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
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?.