Commander, Assistant Conductor
When I first heard Karol Szymanowski’s opera King Roger a few years ago, the spell was cast. I’m a big fan of the Pole’s music, but this opera is something else. It combines lush, opulent, late-romantic music in a sort of Strauss-Scriabin-Debussy-Wagner mix with mysticism and compactness to create a dramatically powerful piece that one can luxuriate in. The recording I heard and have relied on is Simon Rattle’s fine recording. I’ve always had slight misgivings about the recording, chief among them Thomas Hampson’s portrayal of the title character. He sings splendidly, of course, but his Polish diction isn’t especially convincing when compared to the Polish singers in the cast, and his mannerisms don’t always sound ideal. But I was happy with it since there aren’t exactly a whole lot of other recordings around. Yes, there’s always Karol Stryja’s recording, but his other Szymanowski recordings, while good, don’t exactly blow Rattle into the weeds or anything. Anyway, a year or two ago, Accord released a new, all-Polish recording with one Jacek Kaspszyk leading the Polish National Opera of Warsaw. I had to have it. I should have snapped it up immediately.
Right from the start it is clear that this surpasses Rattle’s effort. The chorus and all of the singers (I think) sing in their native tongue, and the orchestra seems completely inside the music, and all the potential benefits that can bring are indeed realized. I’ll start with the biggest relative improvement: Wojtek Drabowicz makes a more compelling king. His voice is lighter in timber than Hampson’s, and his control seems just as good and his range better. He can belt out the notes with complete control and without sounding strained. His cries of Roxana!, while perhaps not especially moving, are physical and exciting. His dealings with the Shepard are terse, searching, confused, and angry as required, and throughout he has a commanding presence. Perhaps Hampson does a bit better at sounding tormented when deciding whether to arrest the Shepard and when Roxana leaves, but that’s about it. Just about as good is the Shepard of Piotr Beczala, whose singing is appropriately seductive and persuasive. When he throws off his chains it is with defiance and passion and disregard. I give him the edge over Ryszard Minkiewicz for Rattle. I will confess, though, to rather preferring Philip Langridge’s Edrisi. Perhaps Langridge’s long experience with Mussorgsky helped him master Slavic singing, but whatever the case I find him a shrewder character, even if his voice isn’t a great deal more pleasing than Krzysztof Szmyt’s. I definitely prefer Elzbieta Szmytka’s Roxana for Rattle to Olga Pasiecznik’s here. Szymtka’s voice is more attractive and sounds more mysterious and ethereal in her second act aria (?) and pretty much everywhere else. Ms Pasiecznik is still fine, though. The other singers are mostly better here. As to the choral contribution, well, Rattle may benefit from greater heft and clarity, but Kaspszyk gets more intensity.
That leaves the conductors and the bands. Make no mistake, Rattle leads a superbly performed version. His CBSO is in top form, and nary a note seems out of place and everything is cleanly executed. Rattle and his cohorts really play up the lavishness and beauty of the score and deliver towering climaxes. Kaspszyk and his forces, on the on the other hand, deliver a tauter, leaner, more dramatic reading. The music is still rich and gorgeous and opulent, but strictly aural concerns are less important than dramatic ones. That’s the right choice. This brief opera not only never flags, it flies by, and all concerned know how and when to play the music with overwhelming power, though it’s always beautiful. In many ways, this recording reminds me of the various Supraphon recordings of Janacek’s operas when compared to Charles Mackerras’ Decca recordings. Chuck knows his Janacek, there’s no doubt, and he knows it better than Rattle knows Szymanowski, but the Czech forces just seem so comfortable in the idiom that it sounds more immediately accessible and pleasant, if not as lush. So it is here.
Rattle also benefits from better sound, with deeper, stronger bass and almost unreal detail and clarity. The newer recording sounds less clear and doesn’t rattle the foundation, but it also sounds less processed than the EMI sound. Ultimately, sound is much more than acceptable for both recordings. There ain’t no way I’m going to get rid of the Rattle set, but Jacek Kaspszyk’s version will be the one I turn to first. An exceptional recording.
a very interesting post. first of all, I wasn't aware of the new(ish) Kaspszyk recording and it would be good to compare it with the Rattle who had little serious competition to my knowledge previously for this fine opera. I have always thought that Szymanowski was one of his better composers --have heard Rattle live twice and really enjoyed the concerts but on record the impression is often that the sound picture and sensousness is more important than real emotional content. Comparing his Stabat mater with the Naxos Stryja for instance I felt that Rattle is superior in atmospherics and recording but not quite the same intensity. The Mackerras v Supraphon Janacek opera comparison is also intriguing and in the UK, I think the former is sometimes automatically assumed to be best which is unfair as the Czech performances can feel more authentic though there's no question that mackerras has produced some gripping readings, esp. of jenufa and katja. And Rattle in Janacek? Well I recently got rid of his Glag. Mass and the totally soporific Sinfonietta of his Berlin predecessor (Abbado)