PANUFNIK: Heroic Overture. Landscape. Symphony No. 3, “Sinfonia Sacra.” Symphony No. 5, “Sinfonia di Sfere”

by Walter Simmons

PANUFNIK Heroic Overture. Landscape. Symphony No. 3, “Sinfonia Sacra.” Symphony No. 5, “Sinfonia di Sfere” • John Storgårds, cond; Tampere Phil O • ONDINE ODE 1101-5 (75:27)

The music of Sir Andrzej Panufnik appears today to have a small but dedicated following—at least in the United States. Born in Poland in 1914, he suffered through the ravages of World War II, then endured the repressive political regime that followed in Poland. In 1954 he escaped to England, and received British citizenship in 1961. He was knighted in 1991, just a few months before he died. (These are the barest essential facts. Further details are readily available on the Internet and elsewhere.) Perhaps Panufnik’s most distinguished and eloquent advocate has been former Fanfare critic Bernard Jacobson, who wrote the program notes for the recording at hand, as well as for most of the other recordings of this composer’s music known to me.

A retrospective overview of Panufnik’s body of work falls roughly thus: Most of the works composed prior to World War II were destroyed; then there were the few works composed during the uneasy years in post-War Poland, some of which contained mildly experimental features, but many of which were simply innocuous suites featuring arrangements of music by early Polish composers; and finally there were the many works composed during the almost-40 years after his immigration to England in 1954. However, this final category can be further subdivided into the period from 1954 until about 1967, and that which began around 1968 with Universal Prayer, and lasted until his death.

My reason for belaboring the foregoing breakdown is to highlight a certain irony: That is, it was during the final phase (c. 1968-1991), during which he composed seven of his ten symphonies, that Panufnik achieved something approaching international recognition, with a Violin Concerto commissioned by Yehudi Menuhin, a Cello Concerto commissioned by Rostropovitch, and performances by some of the world’s leading orchestras conducted by the likes of Georg Solti and Seiji Ozawa. However, it was during the previous, relatively short, period (1954-1967) that he composed the works upon which most claims for his stature as a major figure are based. These works exhibit a particularly personal, unmistakable “sound,” the elements of which include diatonic melodic lines, sometimes inflected by slides and quartertones, drawn literally from or suggested by Polish folk music; imaginative instrumental usages that produce strikingly unusual and often ethereal timbral effects central to the essence of the music; and an idiosyncratic harmonic language based on a distinctive modality with an almost obsessive juxtaposition of both major and minor triads—widely spaced—and major and minor sevenths. This variable or ambiguous treatment of the third and seventh scale steps, though ostensibly Polish in origin, happens to coincide with the “blues” scale and gives much of Panufnik’s music (as it does to that of Carl Nielsen) an American accent that is quite incongruous with the composer’s actual identity, both aesthetic and ethnic.

To proceed with the new release at hand: The ambitious Finnish company Ondine has released a recording—in “SACD Surround Sound”—of four Panufnik works from various points in his career, performed by the Tampere Philharmonic under the direction of its enterprising conductor John Storgårds. The earliest composition is the Heroic Overture, which was conceived in 1939, completed in 1952, and then revised in 1969. (Many revisions of works from Panufnik’s “Polish period” were quite minor, undertaken to evade copyright issues with the Polish government.) The overture was originally intended to arouse the Polish people’s resistance against Nazi aggression. However, by the time he completed it, the work had taken on a covert meaning for the composer, a statement of resistance against Communist oppression. However, as a piece of music, the Heroic Overture is remarkable for its utter banality, and would be indistinguishable from any number of other patriotic exhortations were it not for the presence of Panufnik’s peculiar harmonic and formal idiosyncracies—not only the major-minor clashes, but also almost mechanical sequential repetitions that go beyond the conventional norm. The performance here is tight and decisive, perhaps a little more solid and confident than Jascha Horenstein’s 1971 recording on Unicorn with the London Symphony Orchestra.

Light-years away from Heroic Overture is the brief work for strings entitled Landscape. There are many short, euphonious pieces for string orchestra—especially from England—but this is unlike any of them. Composed in 1962 and revised three years later, it is an abstract landscape, an ethereal evocation of an otherworldly realm, perhaps a landscape of an uninhabited planet. Here Panufnik’s obsession with major-minor clashes dominates the hazy texture, producing a bittersweet, hauntingly beautiful, motionless vision. In this performance Storgårds takes a tempo considerably slower than Panufnik’s own on his 1981 Unicorn recording with the London Symphony Orchestra. However, I would have to say that the Finnish conductor makes a considerably more forceful, convincing statement of the work.

The centerpiece of the disc for me, however—and I suspect for most listeners as well—is what is arguably the composer’s masterpiece, and one of the most deeply moving European symphonies of the second half of the 20th century: the Sinfonia Sacra, the third in Panufnik’s cycle of ten. It is a work of amazing individuality and conviction—indeed, I know no other work quite like it. Yet despite its remarkable originality, it is not at all difficult to grasp and enjoy on initial exposure, although with increasing familiarity one finds more aspects to appreciate. Sinfonia Sacra was composed in 1963, as a tribute to Poland’s millennium—one thousand years of statehood and Christianity. The entire work is based on the first few notes of “Bogurodzica,” an ancient Polish hymn that served both religious and patriotic functions. The symphony reflects this bifurcated significance in its unusual structure: two movements, the first comprising three “Visions,” the second entitled “Hymn.” The three visions are martial, ethereal, and violent, respectively; the unfolding of the Hymn, which grows with an insinuating deliberateness that is almost painful in its protraction, culminates in an utterly unforgettable climax, as the various essential elements of the work are united. Although I am far from alone in my enthusiasm for the symphony, its exposure on the international music scene has unfortunately not reached the “tipping point” achieved by, say, Gorecki’s Third Symphony, although I believe Panufnik’s is a far more imposing work, and no less accessible to the general listener.

There have been a handful of recordings of Sinfonia Sacra, two of them conducted by Panufnik himself. Again Storgårds adopts a slower tempo than the composer’s, especially in the Hymn. However, despite extremely responsive and impressive playing from the Finnish orchestra, here he is not as successful as in Landscape. The emotional impact of the entire work, and of the Hymn in particular, is created by the most ingenious manipulation of psychological and musical elements relative to matters of timing. Drawing out the time element to such an extent (14:23 vs. Panufnik’s own 9:27) vitiates the effect somewhat. Also, although the “SACD/Surround” recording technique would seem to be ideally suited to a work in which four antiphonally placed trumpets play an important role, this feature was not notably apparent when auditioned on the appropriate apparatus. The preferred recording of Sinfonia Sacra is a 1990 release on Elektra/Nonesuch, with the composer conducting the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam. The fact that this recording has—if I am not mistaken—been unavailable for some years is a disgrace. I strongly urge all who are moved to pursue this work to seek out the remaining copies of this particular recording from Amazon and other sources that traffic in used CDs. You will not be disappointed.

As distinctive as the music of Panufnik’s “early English period” may have been, its idiosyncratic language was undeniably circumscribed, eventually exhausting its creative potential, and making some sort of stylistic shift inevitable. Beginning with the work entitled Universal Prayer, the composer elevated what had been a somewhat eccentric fascination with narrowly conceived formal restrictions into the overarching determinant of the structural and expressive character of an entire piece. Although his program notes contained pious statements affirming his dedication to a balance between significant poetic content and a strong autonomous structure, often there is no balance. His elaborate quasi-mystical structural designs, accompanied by intricate geometric representations of these designs, are essentially static, rather than dynamic, concepts. Musical materials are often limited to just a few intervallic cells. At times the structural machinery simply seized control and generated a rigidly dehumanized bore, either preciously rarefied or numbingly banal (or both), the music itself serving as a reification in sound of the conceptual design. Some of these later works fare better than others.

Sinfonia di Sfere
, Panufnik’s No. 5, was composed in 1974-75, and is one of the more palatable later symphonies. In his program notes Jacobson refrains—wisely perhaps—from elaborating the composer’s generating concept, although the title tells you it has something to do with orbs. The work reveals the composer’s unwavering sensitivity and ingenuity with regard to sonority, and the gestures he devised display a richly inventive imagination. But the absence of a melodic/harmonic dynamic thrust is an unmistakable loss, especially in a work more than half an hour in duration. Storgårds’s performance is meticulous and well gauged. Another excellent recording of this work, featuring the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Atherton, was issued during the late 1970s. That recording has recently been reissued on the Explore label. Both performances are superb.

In closing, I most fervently advocate a new recording of the Sinfonia Elegiaca, the second of Panufnik’s extant symphonic essays, and the extraordinarily beautiful work that introduced Americans (myself included) to his name and music during the early 1960s via one of the Louisville Orchestra’s sloppiest performances. The current CD reissue of that recording is simply inadequate, except to illustrate the need for a better one.