Szymanowski: King Roger; Symphony No. 4 (Sinfonia concertante)

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5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

COMPOSERS: Szymanowski
LABELS: EMI
WORKS: King Roger; Symphony No. 4 (Sinfonia concertante)
PERFORMER: Leif Ove Andsnes (piano), Thomas Hampson, Ryszard Minkiewicz, Elzbieta Szmytka, Philip Langridge, Jadwiga Rappe, Robert Gierlach; CBSO, Chorus & Youth Chorus/Simon Rattle
CATALOGUE NO: CDS 5 56823 2
Completed in 1924, Szymanowski’s inexplicably neglected masterpiece, King Roger, was not staged in Britain till 1975. But as with Rattle’s 1994 recording of his Third Symphony and Stabat mater, this superlative issue ought to ensure the opera reaches a wider public. It’s a curious but glorious work. Its static action and emphasis on choral singing make it more oratorio than opera in form. And its stylistically distinct, tableau-like acts – the first evoking a Byzantine-Christian rite; the second Arabic-Indian exoticism; and the third an Ancient Greek bacchanal – suggest catholic influences. (It takes place, incidentally, in 12th-century Sicily.) Unashamedly late-Romantic, it’s chiefly reminiscent of Strauss’s Salome (even the setting – a Christian court upset by the presence of an outsider advocating a new religion – is not dissimilar), with its luxuriant, glittering textures, vivid colouring and febrile sensuousness. But there are echoes, too, of Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloë in the third-act ‘strange music’ of Arcadia, and of Rimsky-Korsakov in Queen Roxana’s famous Act II aria.

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It’s hard to see how this performance could have been bettered. Each of the principals is superb: Thomas Hampson’s troubled but dignified King; Ryszard Minkiewicz’s charismatic, mysterious shepherd-prophet; Philip Langridge’s sage Edrisi; and especially the soprano Elzbieta Szmytka’s soaring, impassioned Roxana. Best of all, though, is the CBSO’s sensational playing: intoxicating in its fervour, yet exquisitely detailed and taut. Disc 2 also contains an exhilarating account of the Sinfonia concertante, with the pianist Leif Ove Andsnes, as a bonus. Claire Wrathall