Szymanowski King Roger; Symphony No 4
King Roger is a ravishingly beautiful opera, but a very fragile one. Like Verdi’s La traviata it is an opera whose central role is crucial, but whereas a Traviata with a rather sub-standard baritone remains Traviata, a King Roger with a shrill soprano or a less than ideally cast tenor would be fatally flawed. Neither disaster happens here. Minkiewicz’s Dionysiac Shepherd betrays a slight hardness and a touch of stress in full voice, but he has both the allure and the mystery that the role imperatively demands. Almost his first words are ‘My God is as beautiful as I’, and he should vocally suggest that he is indeed radiantly beautiful. Not at all unacceptably his voice shades to a croon at times, but he never sounds epicene. Szmytka is a wonderful Roxana, with beautifully pure high notes and bell-like coloratura. At the end of Act 2 her florid aria is repeated (in Szymanowski’s concert version), at just the point where you might well have replayed the earlier track for the pleasure of listening to her again. The use of distinguished singers in the smaller roles is no extravagance: Langridge evokes the exotic strangeness of the Arab sage Edrisi, while Rappe and Gierlach add to the hieratic gravity of the opening scene.
All this makes the central role even more central. Hampson is in fine voice, easily conveying Roger’s authority, his angry but bewildered rejection of the Shepherd’s new religion. He is even finer, however, in Act 5, where the King is painfully torn between Dionysus and Apollo. The ambiguity of the final scene remains, as it must. Is Roger accepting the Shepherd in place of Roxana (as near as Szymanowski dared get to avowing his homosexuality)? Or, since Roxana herself immediately succumbs to the Shepherd’s glamour, is Roger achieving wholeness by at last acknowledging feminine intuitions within himself? That these questions remain resonant and provoking at the end of the performance is a tribute of course to the work itself, but also to Rattle’s handling of it.
The orchestral textures are voluptuously rich and subtly coloured, aided by a spacious recording (the vast Byzantine basilica of the opening scene is magnificently evoked) and orchestral playing of a very high order indeed. But the score has sombre and austere colours as well as exotically rich ones, and the dramatic urgency of the performance makes Szymanowski’s opera seem even shorter than it is. This is, I think, the finest recording of King Roger that has so far appeared; Karol Stryja’s, at budget price on Naxos, is estimable and accomplished, but with a less poetic Shepherd and less sheer magnificence of sound, it is a worthy runner-up rather than a rival.
The Fourth Symphony, in Szymanowski’s later, folk-derived and harder-edged style, is a huge contrast: quite a shock after the opera’s radiant conclusion. Andsnes’s powerfully athletic playing points up the music’s affinities with Prokofiev, and both he and Rattle emphasize the new vigour that Szymanowski was drawing from the fiddle music of the Tatra region, but in the lovely slow movement Roxana’s world, if not the Shepherd’s, still seems within reach. '