Szymamowski Hagith PMoC SMP201404

Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937)
Hagith, Op.25 (1913)
Urška Arlič Gololičič (soprano) – Hagith
Tomasz Kuk (tenor) – Aged King
Andrzej Lampert (tenor) – Young King
Daniel Borowski (bass) – High Priest
Łukasz Rosiak (baritone) – Doctor
Polish Radio Choir, Krakow Festival Orchestra/Bassem Akiki
rec. 2013, Festival of Polish Music, Krakow, Poland
Polish Ministry of Culture SMP201404 [71]

On a couple of occasions last year, reviewing various issues of operatic rarities, I rejoiced in the fact that recording companies seemed finally to have realised that in the case of generally unknown works it was vital that they should supply sufficient information (specifically, texts and translations) for audiences to appreciate the full impact of what the composers were trying to convey in their scores. It is evident, unfortunately, from this reissue of Szymanowski’s Hagith that the Polish Ministry of Culture who are responsible for the issue of this recording are totally and culpably indifferent to such considerations.

When an alternative set from Polish Radio was issued last September, Jim Westhead in a review for this site commented favourably on its presentation complete not only with the complete Polish libretto but also translations into English and German. These are altogether absent in this issue, and one can appreciate perhaps that the cost of reproducing all the textual material in a booklet might be regarded as prohibitive. Indeed the booklet itself points out that a libretto is available on the company’s website. But when you try to download this (and it is not that easy to locate since the provided link is erroneously given), you will find that the text is given in Polish only, and that translations have been jettisoned altogether. German readers are cast into utter darkness; English readers are provided, even more frustratingly, with a single page of synopsis which is not even cued to the individual tracks and skimps whole reams of detail both of dialogue and action which is absolutely essential to the comprehension of the music.

The booklet note insouciantly states that the story is familiar from its original Biblical sources. Well, very much up to a point. Even by the generally scandalous standards of behaviour encountered in the Biblical Book of Kings, the conduct of David and Solomon (neither named in this version, just described as the “aged” and “young” king respectively) is pretty repulsive in the text as prepared for Szymanowski by Felix Dörmann. In fact the additional salacious details provided are actually as close to their Biblical sources as Wilde’s version of Salome set by Strauss – that is to say, almost totally at odds with the original. That might not be so serious, were the text to have been supplied; but in the absence of the skeleton on which the composer constructed his clear attempt to out-Strauss Strauss, the listener is simply left with a seriously bad taste in the mouth as the dying old king attempts to purchase an extension of his life by the sacrifice of the virginity of a young girl.

Fortunately, to some extent, the problems are ameliorated by the fact that the invaluable ISMLP website does furnish a copy of the 1920 Universal Edition of the vocal score, which supplies not only the original Polish text and stage directions but also a German translation which goes some way to fill in the gaps in the documentation provided with this set. It also serves to demonstrate the high quality of the performance of the score provided in this concert performance by a generally young cast and well-rehearsed chorus and orchestra. Szyamowski has come under some critical fire for writing both his principal male roles for tenors, but the vocal score shows his care in differentiating the style and writing for the two singers concerned. The old king is written for a baritone-heldentenor voice of the type who would normally sing Siegmund in Wagner’s Ring, with a generally low-lying tessiture which the composers is at pains to reinforce by the ample provision of alternatives enabling the singer to avoid higher notes – most of them taken in this performance. The young king by comparison is written for a higher lyrical voice, also required to provide some heroic delivery to ride over the often-noisy orchestra, but more suited to an Italianate voice such as a Puccini specialist. The role of Hagith also requires a heroic delivery in places, but then will fine down to a cruel demand for a whole succession of quiet high notes in the final pages where she reconciles herself to the thought of death – the composer signifies his doubts as to the practicality of his demands by placing his insistent indications of pianissimo in brackets, that is in effect to shrug his shoulders with a wry observation “if possible”. The two other solo roles, who are sometimes directed to sing in unison, are more conventional.

And the singers here really do rise to the challenges presented. Urška Arlič Gololičič as Hagith not only provides us with the pianissimi that Szymanowski so optimistically requested, but spins out a long lyrical line in passages such as the love duet rising to rock-steady high-flying ecstaties with never a suspicion of ugly tone or wobble. She can be dramatic too, as in the passages where the composer flirts with the idea of sprechstimme writing notes in the vocal part as indications of approximate pitch. Andrzej Lampert as the young king matches her in his delivery in the upper reaches, not altogether avoiding a sense of strain but never unmusical. Tomasz Kuk in the more difficult role of the old king cannot begin to succeed in making his part sympathetic – the dramatic situation makes that well-nigh impossible – but also copes well with his sprechstimme passages and delivers his lines forcefully but without bellowing. But all three singers have to cope in places with some very heavy orchestration, and here doubts begin to enter regarding some of the recorded balances.

It sounds very much here as though the recording was made in a concert performance, since the choral entries and offstage passages all appear to be in the same acoustic; but it also sounds as if the singers are positioned behind the orchestra in an opera-house fashion but without the dampening of the orchestral sound produced by an orchestra pit. That may well be the result of microphone placement, but it does sometimes result in the suspicion that the vocal lines are veiled by the high woodwind and brass. Kuk in particular suffers from this, and indeed sounds placed further back from the microphones than Daniel Borowski and Łukasz Rosiak who sing the roles of the priest and the doctor. This may however simply be part of the overall recording levels. The very opening of the opera, scored for cellos and basses only, is admittedly marked ppp possible; but even if the listener sets the volume control to the point at which the creeping melodic line is barely audible, then the climaxes (with full organ added to the orchestra) become overwhelmingly loud and indeed uncomfortable for domestic listening. Other passages, especially the quiet sections for strings, then also sound overly distanced. The fault cannot be laid at the door of the orchestra, or indeed of the conductor, since it is clearly to be ascribed to Szymanowski himself; the opening of King Roger is another case in point where the sheer range of the dynamic is almost impossible to encompass within a sensible recording parameter. But some discreet tweaking might have assisted. There is one other annoying misjudgement: at the end there is a silence of a couple of seconds, followed by one solitary spectator clapping who is then joined by applause from a handful of what sounds like a horribly under-populated audience a few moments later. This desultory appreciation is surely worse than nothing at all; indeed, I wonder why it was simply not edited out. The audience are otherwise commendably quiet throughout, even in the stillest of pianissimo passages.

Discussing the rival CD from Polish Radio, Jim Whitehead on the contrary complained of the over-close microphone placement to the singers, observing indeed that in the love duet “the voices can be rather overwhelming”. He also remarked upon the fact that the Hagith in that recording, Wioletta Chodowicz, could to advantage have had a lighter voice – like Urška Arlič Gololičič here. A review of an earlier DVD also with Chodowicz also refers to her “strained” singing. Which means, unfortunately, that despite the comparatively minor questions of balance, the quality of the singing here is probably preferable to that on the more recent recording. Two of the singers indeed – Andrzej Lampert and Łukasz Rosiak – are identical. (I would love to be able to draw more positive conclusions, but neither recording appears to be currently available on the streaming platforms I was able to access.)

So, it all comes down to what you want. You can have a recording complete with translations, but a recording which emphasises weaknesses in the singing; or you can have this one, with superior singing and more realistic recording, but with fatal drawbacks in the presentation.

At all events this score deserves much greater attention than it has previously received. I cannot imagine how it would fit into the schedule of an opera house – as a one-act opera it would overwhelm any companion (with the possible exception of Bluebeard’s Castle). And it would be too short to occupy a whole evening in the manner of Salome. It would indeed have found a possibly ideal niche on this recording, if the Polish Ministry of Culture had been sufficiently aware of the needs of audiences to make sure that they knew what they were experiencing. It is, I suppose, always possible that they might now match their radio colleagues and make English and German translations available on line. Great is the rejoicing in heaven over the sinner who repenteth (wrong sort of Biblical allusion, I know).

Paul Corfield Godfrey

Availability: Festival of Polish Music