- Król Roger (King Roger), opera in 3 acts, Op. 46, M55 - Karol Szymanowski - Karol Szymanowski - City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra Chorus - City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra - Simon Halsey - Thomas Hampson - Jaroslaw Iwaszkiewicz - Philip Langridge - Ryszard Minkiewicz - Adrian Partington - Jadwiga Rappe - Simon Rattle - Elzbieta Szmytka - Robert Gierlach
- Symphony No.4 ("Symphonie Concertante"), for piano & orchestra, Op. 60, M70 - Karol Szymanowski - City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra - Simon Rattle
Part of the problem has to do with the opera's all-but-fatal combination of difficulty and brevity. Lasting barely 90 minutes, it nonetheless makes outrageous demands on singers and players alike. In addition to the complex and demanding title role, KING ROGER requires the services of a lyric tenor with a distinct heroic edge and a soprano who has to negotiate the soaring tessitura of one of opera's most demanding heroines, Queen Roxanne, whose bewitching Act II aria is the only well-known moment in the show. Add to this an almost unbelievably luxuriant orchestral palette that rivals the most intricate scores of Richard Strauss and Franz Schreker, and it becomes increasingly clear why KING ROGER is not heard with the same monotonous frequency as "La Bohème."
Yet over and above its sheer technical difficulty, there is the other "problem" of KING ROGER: the subtle but obvious homoerotic subtext that makes producers reluctant to take it on. Like many gay European intellectuals of the time, Szymanowski came to terms with his sexuality in North Africa, a land whose heady, unmistakable exoticism -- together with hints of Debussy, Ravel, and the Strauss of "Die Frau ohne Schatten" -- colors the score. The result is an opera so sinuous, sensual, and breathtakingly erotic that it makes Strauss's "Salome" and Rimsky-Korsakov's "Le Coq d'Or" seem almost puritanical in comparison.
Not only is Sir Simon Rattle's new EMI recording the finest yet made, it is also the most completely convincing that were are ever likely to hear. With Thomas Hampson predictably commanding in the title role, Ryszard Minkiewicz ideally innocent and seductive as the mysterious shepherd, and Elzbieta Szmytka so alluring and full of animal magnetism as the Queen that she suggests the title character in the late Jean Shepherd's classic story, "The Star-Crossed Romance of Josephine Cosnowski," this cast is not going to be bettered anytime soon. But the real star here is Sir Simon Rattle, whose seemingly instinctive grasp of this fabulously challenging idiom reveals him as the great Szymanowski conductor of this or any age. Perhaps all that this last neglected giant of 20th-century music really needs is the same sort of champion Delius's music had in Sir Thomas Beecham or Mahler's had in Leonard Bernstein. With Sir Simon Rattle, Szymanowski may have found his man.