Classical: The Compact Collection

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The Independent Culture
This week's cue is colour, with Karol Szymanowski's opera King Roger first in line. The libretto concerns a Norman king who initially resists but ultimately responds to the god Dionysius, whose inner life is hard to fathom and whose character is as complex as Szymanowski's own. King Roger is both concise and infinitely suggestive. And while its principal roles offer plenty of scope for expressive vocalising (Queen Roxana's curvaceous aria was once arranged as a fiddle solo), the bulk of its impact rests more with the orchestra than with the singers.

It's an incredible tapestry of sound. Imagine Bluebeard's Castle decorated by Scriabin and you'll gain some idea of the score's spaciousness, its sensual allure and abundance of jewel-like detail. Representative sampling points pass virtually by the minute, but some of the most striking music occurs when the god (initially a shepherd) probes the King's unconscious with seductive words and music (disc 1, tracks 12-14). Elzbieta Szmytka makes a glorious queen (her aria is offered twice, once with Szymanowski's concert ending); Thomas Hampson conveys a good measure of Roger's inner turmoil; Ryszard Minkiewicz suggests a very a credible god-shepherd, and Philip Langridge is especially convincing as the councillor Edrisi.

As to the orchestral score, no one conducts Szymanowski with greater dedication than Sir Simon Rattle and the CBSO play as if utterly captivated. And there's more. Szymanowski's Fourth Symphony is leaner than King Roger, less ornately textured, more rhythmically propulsive and strengthened in this context by Leif Ove Andsnes's on-the-ball piano-playing. Both recordings are magnificent. King Roger greets a new god at night, whereas Varese's explosive tone-poem Arcana paints a new star and a new heaven. Thirty years before Riccardo Chailly and the Royal Concertgebouw stormed the aural firmament for Decca (recently nominated for a 1999 Gramophone Award), RCA made a sonic blockbuster of Arcana with the Chicago Symphony under Jean Martinon.

It's a more confrontational reading than Chailly's, fiercer at those points where Varese apes a village band (3'15"), or nets a feather or two from The Fire Bird (2'28") or punches mercilessly at the jugular (8'08"). And the couplings are equally gripping: a proud statement of Hindemith's Nobilissima Visione (the closing "Passacaglia" is overwhelming) and explicit reportage of Bartk's sex-crazed Miraculous Mandarin Suite.

My own preference in the Bartk is for something rather more subtle, but Martinon pulls no punches - and with the Mandarin, punches certainly matter. Which leaves us poised somewhere between the stars and the gutter, a ballroom perhaps, though with Nikolaus Harnoncourt a waltz is never just a waltz. A brand new Berlin Philharmonic Strauss concert distributes four well-loved favourites among half-a-dozen comparative rarities, immaculately played and fastidiously phrased. The concert ends with an unfamiliar jubilee march "God Preserve the Emperor Franz" and passing references to Haydn's famous hymn - replete with attendant historical baggage, good and bad.

Szymanowski/Rattle EMI CDS5 56823 2 (two discs); Varese, Hindemith, Bartk/ Martinon RCA "High Performance" 09026 63315 2; Johann Strauss/Harnoncourt Teldec 3984-24489-2