City of Birmingham SO/ Rattle, Symphony Hall, Birmingham

Sheikh, Rattle and Pole
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

A decade ago the South Bank mounted a festival – a very good one – featuring the music of Karol Szymanowski, under the fatuous title of The Last Romantic. Romanticism lives on, and was kicking long before the concept was poached to characterise post-classical kitsch or Victorian New Wave. The 14th century was riddled with it. Just when Khajeh Shamseddin Mohammad Hafiz Shirazi (c1320-89), whose rapt poems Szymanowski set in translation in his two Hafiz song cycles of 1911 and 1914, was sharing his Sufi vision with sheikhs in post-Genghis Khan southern Persia.

Most of the impressive Polish recordings of Szymanowski's song cycles date from the 1980s. The gay, chain-smoking Szymanowski (1882-1937), once a doyen of the 1920s European avant garde, is enjoying an Indian summer. No one has done more to enhance his reputation and capture the by turns pure and scented idyllism of his music than Sir Simon Rattle and the CBSO. This week, shedding Berlin for his former Midland stomping ground, a relatively restrained Rattle introduced Symphony Hall audiences to three unfamiliar Szymanowski works: the song cycles Love Songs of Hafiz and Songs of an Infatuated Muezzin – not a contradiction in terms, earthly passion being a Sufi reflection of the divine – plus Harnasie (The Mountain Robbers), the astonishing ballet with voices, one of his last works.

Rattle is poised to record these for EMI, and the performances seem all but ready. A few ritenutos need firming up and the mountain band music could beruder – amid Gorale cacophonies the CBSO displayed just a little too much politesse: the wild explosions of this riot of a ballet (Polish Robin Hood-cum-Dick Turpin eyes peasant wench, gatecrashes her wedding with motley mates and abducts her amid Tatra twirling) are meant to sound pretty savage.

These are temporary cavils; Rattle has a terrific team in the CBSO and chorus. Tenor Timothy Robinson is perfect. His rustic cheerleading was aptly swashbuckling and the Brigand's final meltdown "Are you not glad to see me?" was just as his serenade has it: "pure as a lamb in heaven". Equally convincing was his intoning of Jaroslav Iwaszkiewicz's lovelorn, minaret-hoist muezzin in Szymanowski's 1918 cycle, with which the rapt King Roger forms the culmination of his charged, luxuriant middle-period works. Intriguingly Szymanowski's Muezzin orchestration, finished 15 years later, is scored for compact forces, which gave Rattle the chance to tease out the purity of the loveliest song, "The City Asleep", as the disappointed voyeur toasts his lotus-like putative lover.

Katarina Karneus was an enchanting soloist in four of the eight orchestrated Hafiz songs; we missed Szymanowski's exquisite culmination, "The Grave of Hafiz", but Rattle encored No 3, "Dance", which makes a florid finale. The CBSO – tongued flute, twin keyboards, Jonathan Kelly's oboe and Richard Jenkinson's brief cello solo – were terrific. Once Karneus has relaxed, these Hafiz songs should prove world-beating.