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With perfect timing, following the recent acclaimed Covent Garden production and a foreword by sir Antonio Pappano, this splendid study of one of the most remarkable operas of the 20th century offers an exceptional distillation of information and analysis that is both scholarly and accessible.

Alistair Wightman presents a lucid background essay on its literary sources, an account of the development of the composition from its earliest sketches in 1918 to completion in 1926 and an expert analysis of the music, which is deftly aligned with plot synopsis, and copiously illustrated with music examples presenting, with penetrating clarity, all that happens on stage and within this fascinating score.

Wightman achieves the difficult balance of clearly explaining theoretical and musicological problems that can be understood by the layman on basic level, and yet still appreciated by a musician. moreover, the music of the opera is always placed in the context of the composer’s output and its time.

A chapter about Szymanowski and the theatre gives a welcome overview of his other stage works, both completed and unrealised, and told me much that i did not know. For example, I had never realised that Szymanowski worked with Ryszard Bolesławski, later Richard Boleslawsky, a very famous film director in Hollywood in the 1930s.

Wightman writes in a fluent, authoritative and very readable style, and clearly loves his subject, while not flinching from the weaknesses and problems of both composer and work.

I especially liked the chapter devoted to the opera’s production history, particularly a pithy dismembering of recent unfortunate modern stagings, that frequently served everyone but the composer. An excellent bibliography and discography and many fine illustrations, some extremely rare, completes what is, for me, possibly the best book devoted to a single work that I have ever read, and which will repay frequent study.

Fully annotated with excellent footnotes (always preferred to endnotes) this concise book will do much to ensure that King Roger assumes its rightful place in the repertory at last. Alistair Wightman is now preparing a volume of Szymanowski’s letters.

BRENDAN G CARROLL Read the full review on Agora Classica

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