Panufnik Tragic Overture. Nocturne. Heroic Overture. Katyn Epitaph. A Procession for Peace. Harmony. Panufnik Symphony No. 1, “Sinfonia Rustica.” Symphony No. 4, “Sinfonia Concertante.” Polonia. Lullaby

by Walter Simmons

PANUFNIK Tragic Overture. Nocturne. Heroic Overture. Katyń Epitaph. A Procession for Peace. Harmony ● Łukasz Borowicz, cond; Polish Radio SO ● cpo 777 497-2 (61:16)

PANUFNIK Symphony No. 1, “Sinfonia Rustica.” Symphony No. 4, “Sinfonia Concertante.”PoloniaLullaby ● Łukasz Borowicz, cond; Polish Radio SO; Łukasz Długosz (fl); Anna Sikorzak-Olek (hp) ● cpo 777 496-2 (77:55)

There has been no shortage of recordings—and some very fine ones at that—of the music of Sir Andrzej Panufnik (1914-1991). Nevertheless, important gaps have remained, several of which are filled by these recent releases, the first two volumes of the German company cpo’s announced series of the composer’s complete orchestral works, in performances featuring the Polish Radio Orchestra, under the leadership ofŁukasz Borowicz, a much-acclaimed conductor still in his early 30s. There is little to criticize in these new performances: The fact that the Polish Radio Orchestra of today can hold its own with the London Symphony Orchestra of the 1970s (when that orchestra recorded much of this music) is yet one more indication of the extraordinary increase in proficiency and polish exhibited by musical ensembles around the world over the course of the past half-century.

Panufnik was one of the most unusual and distinctive European composers of his generation. Although he was considered by his countrymen to be the greatest living Polish composer while still residing in his native land (until he ran afoul of the political regime), and later he was honored with knighthood in England, his adopted homeland, his music has never achieved a really broad following. But it has won an intensive following among a devoted group of enthusiastic admirers. Among the best known of his champions have been Leopold Stokowski, Jascha Horenstein, Nadia Boulanger, and Yehudi Menuhin. There is a good deal of biographical information on Panufnik, as well as leads for further research, on the Internet, to which I direct the interested reader. And several of my own reviews of prior releases can be found on my Web site (

Virtually all of Panufnik’s music was destroyed during World War II, although he did attempt to reconstruct some of the lost works. So, generally speaking, his extant creative output can be dated from the mid 1940s. A distinct and consistent style can be discerned in the works from that time until the late 1960s. Then, in 1968 there was a dramatic shift in the composer’s musical language; this second phase of Panufnik’s musical creativity lasted for the remainder of his life, although some commentators may propose further subdivisions. The earlier style is characterized by strong tonal centers and a near-obsession with major-minor conflicts in the third and seventh scale-steps, supposedly derived from Polish folk music. There is also an exquisite sensitivity to ethereal instrumental sonorities, a generous use of string portamento, and a strange focus on extremely minimal motivic elements that are developed through exhaustive developmental procedures. The music of this period often creates an unforgettable impact—strikingly individual and profoundly moving. The masterpiece of this earlier style—and to many, myself included, one of the greatest European works of the 20th century—is the Sinfonia Sacra of 1963, a far more impressive and deeply expressive work than the vastly over-rated Symphony ofSorrowful Songs by Gorecki, which serves as an apt comparison.

In Panufnik’s later style the sensitivity to sonority is heightened somewhat, while a fascination with complex structural blueprints is expanded to become the dominant element of the music. These structures and their development tend not to provide the sense of dynamic progression common to most Western classical music, but, rather, produce a sense of static motion, somewhat analogous to a suspended sculpture or mobile, viewed from different angles as it turns.  In these later works tonality becomes irrelevant and often non-existent, while the concern with major-minor effects almost disappears completely. In his remarkably elegant program notes Panufnik often emphasized the equal importance of both poetic impulse and structural design, but many listeners have felt that the latter overshadowed the former to a fatal degree. While his earlier style may well have become something of a “dead end,” having exhausted the composer’s inventiveness within that language, the later style—which includes the majority of his works—gave rise to a large number of sterile compositions that are, at best, intriguing studies in sonority and, at worst, pretentious exercises in excruciating boredom. Panufnik was clearly sensitive to this issue, stating, “I never regard the technical side of a musical work as an end in itself,” yet often that is exactly the listener’s inescapable conclusion and chief complaint.

Having offered this background, I will discuss the pieces briefly in chronological order, without regard for the disc on which they appear. Each volume offers some stronger compositions and some that may be expendable. I suspect that admirers of Panufnik will want both volumes, while others will have their own individual reasons for making their choices. The fact that earlier recordings led by Horenstein (on Unicorn-Kanchana) and by the composer himself are no longer available will certainly lead interested newcomers to these new cpo releases.

Tragic Overture, originally composed in 1942, was one of the works destroyed in the Warsaw uprising and was re-constructed from memory upon the war’s end. It is a rather monomaniacal work, based entirely on a rapid-fire four-note motif  that is heard in some form or other in virtually every measure. This is an early example of Panufnik’s exhaustive treatment of a single musical idea, presented in simultaneous rhythmic augmentation and diminution. (An out-of-left-field observation for those who know the work in question: Paul Creston’s A Rumor is an orchestral sketch of comparable duration, composed at virtually the same time as the Tragic Overture, and is constructed via almost identical compositional devices, but to diametrically opposite expressive ends.) The impact of this work may be emotionally shattering or numbingly repetitious, depending greatly on the conductor’s interpretive grasp. Borowicz offers a telling rendition of the piece, revealing subtleties and details missed by Horenstein, and presenting the most convincing case for the overture I have ever heard.

Heroic Overture, originally conceived in 1938, but completed later and then revised numerous times, also appeared on the Horenstein recording, as well as on the all-Panufnik CD released by Ondine (ODE 1101-5) in 2007, featuring the Tampere Philharmonic conducted by John Storgårds. The work is far more interesting for its historical connection to political events than for its musical substance. It is a rousing exhortation along the lines suggested by its title, and could have been written by any number of composers—a work of striking banality relative to most of Panufnik’s output, although listeners familiar with the composer’s music will notice the oddly mechanical use of repetition and sequence found in the Tragic Overture and other works. Both this new recording and the Finnish release just mentioned offer tighter performances than Horenstein’s.

Another short piece is the Lullaby for 29 strings and two harps. Composed in 1947, this is the first piece that brought Panufnik’s music to international attention. It is based on an extremely simple, diatonic melody, which is repeated, intertwined among wispy microtonal threads in the other strings, creating an eerie, dreamlike effect. In fact, the eight-minute piece may be said to anticipate Gavin Bryars’s much longer Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet. I believe that this is its first commercial recording.

Also composed in 1947 was Nocturne, another work that might be described as “dreamlike,” or, perhaps more aptly, “nightmarish.” More than twice as long as the Lullaby—perhaps a little too long—it begins barely audibly, but very gradually grows to a voluminous climax highlighted by wild piano glissandos. Though exemplifying Panufnik’s uniquely bittersweet early language, as described above, the work becomes quite dissonant harmonically, which resulted in severe condemnation by the Polish cultural czars, although it had already won first prize in the Karol Szymanowski Competition. The Nocturne remains one of the composer’s most important earlier efforts, exhibiting his extraordinarily imaginative ear for both ethereal and ear-splitting sonorities. In this he may be seen as a forerunner of Joseph Schwantner, an observation borne out in other works as well. The performance offered here is excellent, although Horenstein’s is equally impressive.

Each of Panufnik’s ten symphonies is identified by a descriptive title; No. 1 is called Sinfonia Rustica, and was composed in 1948. This work is based on fragments of Polish folk melodies, and attempts to provide a musical analogue to the Polish folk art of paper-cutting. Again reflecting the composer’s sensitivity to sonority, the orchestra is treated antiphonally, the strings divided in half, each sub-group on either side of the winds and brass. A work of somewhat more mundane character than those just discussed, the symphony offers a vivid example of Panufnik’s distinctive early language, its relative simplicity highlighting the unusual melodic and harmonic features. The astute listener will also discern throughout the work the somewhat mechanical use of sequential repetition noted earlier. The symphony is inconsistent in its degree of appeal: Although the slow movement is quite beautiful, attempts at light-heartedness in the other movements are sometimes awkward and heavy-handed, while the constant major-minor pre-occupations can become tiresome. Despite its overall accessibility, the Soviet Composers Union denounced the work, making Panufnik’s decision to leave Poland increasingly inevitable. The Unicorn-Kanchana disc that featured the Horenstein performances also included the Sinfonia Rustica in a performance by the Monte Carlo Opera Orchestra, conducted by the composer. Borowicz’s interpretation is very close to the composer’s, but the balancing of the harmony in the first movement at times obscures the melody, as can be confirmed from Panufnik’s own rendition. On the other hand the Polish orchestra plays with more finesse than the Monte Carlo ensemble, while cpo’s modern recording techniques pick up more detail. As an extra bonus, cpo offers an earlier, longer version of the slow movement, but its significance is inconsequential.

Polonia, composed in England in 1959, is another composition based on Polish folk music. But if the work just discussed had the pretenses of a symphony, then this piece might be thought of as a divertimento. Though its musical details mark it clearly as a work of Panufnik’s, the five-movement suite is relatively conventional in attitude and largely high-spirited in character. There are moments of considerably beauty, as in the fourth movement, while the third is remarkably banal. As far as I know this is Polonia’s first recording, and the performance appears to do it justice.

Katyń Epitaph is one of the last works in Panufnik’s early style. It is an extraordinary elegy in memory of the 15,000 innocent Poles who were slaughtered by the Russians in 1940 in the Katyń Forest. Composed in 1967, the 8-minute lamentation, which resembles the “Hymn” portion of Sinfonia Sacra, begins ethereally in near inaudibility, then grows gradually to an impassioned, deeply-moving climax.

Panufnik’s Fourth Symphony, composed in 1973, ten years after its predecessor, is called Sinfonia Concertante, and is scored for flute, harp, and strings. Comprising two movements followed by a short postscript, the work represents an entirely different aesthetic orientation from those discussed so far. While the sensitivity to sonority is still apparent, the impact is much less personal, less emotional. Instead one encounters the sort of exquisitely wrought sound-sculpture described earlier in reference to Panufnik’s later works. Although the second movement offers some rhythmic interest, the work is far less compelling than the composer’s earlier works. Interestingly, the postscript, hushed and ethereal, offers a brief reminiscence of that style. This new Polish recording captures somewhat more musical interest than did an earlier recording featuring the Menuhin Festival Orchestra, conducted by the composer.

Panufnik returned to his earlier style for a short work called A Procession for Peace. Commissioned in 1983 for open-air performance, it is based on a hymn-like idea with a treatment of triads reminiscent of Hovhaness, heard against accompanying drumbeats. Beginning softly, the music slowly becomes louder, suggesting the gradual approach of a procession first heard from a distance, then coming closer. This is not a bad piece, although it is much more crude than the earlier works it resembles.

One of Panufnik’s last works was Harmony: A Poem for Chamber Orchestra, composed in 1989, and dedicated to his wife on their 25th wedding anniversary. The piece uses several of the composer’s familiar devices: Beginning softly and delicately and gradually becoming fuller in sonority, it is conceived with antiphonal effects. Although its essential aural impact is intriguing, the largely atonal treatment of materials does not compel one’s attention except sporadically.

I look forward to subsequent releases in this Panufnik project. Most urgently needed is a new recording of Sinfonia Elegiaca, the composer’s second symphony. Robert Whitney and the Louisville Orchestra, who often provided brilliant performances of difficult new compositions, were not at their best when they addressed this very beautiful and deeply moving work.