PANUFNIK Symphony No. 2, “Sinfonia Elegiaca.” Nocturne. Rhapsody

by Walter Simmons

PANUFNIK Symphony No. 2, “Sinfonia Elegiaca.” Nocturne. Rhapsody • Robert Whitney, cond; Louisville O • FIRST EDITION FECD-0017 (51:40)

Aficionados of 20th-century music in the United States owe a considerable debt to Robert Whitney and the Louisville Orchestra for their role in bringing to light otherwise unknown composers and their works. During its heyday from the early 1950s through the mid 1960s, when Whitney was serving as its music director, the orchestra was releasing six new recordings per year by subscription on its own label. True, the orchestra was no rock-solid virtuoso showcase, by any means; in fact, it typically sounded scrawny, soloists were often quite shaky, and ensemble was frequently ragged. But the music they recorded was rarely available in any other incarnation, and many of the works I discovered through those releases remain favorites to this day. And, somewhat to my surprise, as the years have passed, and other, more proficient orchestras have taken up some of the works first launched as part of the Louisville series, it has become apparent that many a celebrated conductor doesn’t have a clue as to how this music is meant to go. Returning to the Louisville originals often produces the realization that ol’ Whitney and his scrappy group had the right idea after all. (Examples of this would take us too far afield from the recording at hand, which does not especially prove the point. However, I would be happy to cite examples to anyone who wishes to write to me at Therefore, one is grateful to discover this new First Edition series, undertaken under the guidance of Matthew Walters, which is re-issuing some of these venerable Louisville recordings onto CD. 

Recently—perhaps in this issue—I wrote about Whitney’s discovery and advocacy of the music of Robert Kurka. Now the subject is the Polish-English composer Andrzej Panufnik (1914-1991), another distinguished figure championed almost exclusively at the time by Whitney—at least in the U.S. (Another Panufnik advocate was Leopold Stokowski, but he had yet to record any of the composer’s work.) As a subscriber to the Louisville series during the early 1960s, I received their new releases as a matter of course, and most often the composers were unfamiliar to me. I will never forget my first exposure to Panufnik’s music: It was back in 1962, and the work was the Sinfonia Elegiaca. From the first minute I knew I was hearing music of great importance and individuality; though it sounded like nothing else I had ever heard, I found it to be profoundly moving.

Well, more than forty years have passed, Panufnik gradually achieved worldwide recognition, and most of his major works were eventually recorded under his direction, or direct supervision, by some of the world’s great orchestras. On the other hand, many of us who were captivated by works like Sinfonia Elegiaca, the symphony that followed, Sinfonia Sacra, and others from that time, such as Autumn Music and some shorter pieces, were more than a little disappointed by the compositions from the late 1960s on, when the composer’s attraction to rigid structural schemas based on intervallic parsimony and geometric structural concepts seemed to have supplanted his humanitarian concerns and their expression through music. In the process, the remarkably individual musical language that made works like Sinfonia Elegiaca so instantly arresting-a language strongly characterized by dual inflections of both the 3rd and 7th scale steps, as well as by an emphasis on extreme registers and other subtleties of orchestration-seemed to give way to the aural outcome of his rigid constructs, which often seemed arbitrary and offered very little in the way of listener-gratification.

All of which leads me to the main point of this review: that for some reason, utterly incomprehensible to me, Sinfonia Elegiaca, which stands today as one of Panufnik’s most strikingly original and profoundly moving works, has never been recorded again. The composer did revise the work in 1966, but, of course, it is the earlier version captured on this Louisville release. Furthermore, despite a noble effort, the Louisville performance of the work is not one of its more stunning successes. The delicate sonorities and subtle harmonic details of this music, requiring the most impeccable intonation, did not exactly play into the orchestra’s strengths, so that one must concede that this performance leaves much of its expressive potential as yet unrealized.

There are two other Panufnik works offered here, in addition to Sinfonia Elegiaca.Nocturne was first composed in 1947, then revised in 1955. Louisville issued it in 1965. It is a fascinating work-a true “dreamscape,” as annotator Marco Shirodkar terms it, mysterious and more than a little frightening as the music seems to coalesce from virtually nothing and gradually takes shape ominously, building to a wildly terrifying climax. This work was re-recorded, and stunningly indeed, by the London Symphony Orchestra in 1970, conducted by none other than Jascha Horenstein. That recording, which also included the remarkably original and exquisite Autumn Music, was available intermittently on the Unicorn label. It is another essential item in the Panufnik discography.

 dates from 1956 and was the first work Panufnik composed after his daring escape to England. It was released by Louisville in 1966, and as far as I know, has not been re-recorded. The 16-minute composition is one of those that draw upon elements of Polish folk music, although Panufnik typically treats this material in such an idiosyncratic and personal way that few are likely to identify its source. The piece is unusual, and quite uneven in its impact: an opening section presents several modal ideas in barren, unaccompanied monophony, which seems something of a miscalculation. The second section seems most clearly based on Polish material, but its treatment is dismally banal and obvious. Then suddenly the final section appears, starkly recalling the material from the opening, but now in a noble polyphony that is pure Panufnik. The piece gradually fades away in hushed beauty.

In summary, Sinfonia Elegiaca is a must for all admirers of Panufnik, and while this performance does not do the work justice, in the absence of any other it is indispensable. And enthusiasts of the composer will no doubt be interested in the Rhapsody as well.