PANUFNIK Symphony No. 6, “Sinfonia Mistica.” Autumn Music. Rhapsody. Hommage à Chopin

by Walter Simmons



PANUFNIK Symphony No. 6, “Sinfonia Mistica.” Autumn Music. Rhapsody. Hommage à Chopin● Łukasz Borowicz, cond; Polish Radio SO; Łukasz Długosz (fl) ● cpo 777 498-2 (73:57)

This is the third volume of what appears to be a comprehensive survey of the orchestral music of the Polish-English composer Andrzej Panufnik (1914-1991). Devotees of Panufnik’s work are referred to Vol. 34, No. 3 of this journal for reviews of the first two releases in this series, written by Phillip Scott and me. Information presented there will not be repeated here (if I can help it).

The earliest work on this program is Hommage à Chopin, originally composed as a vocalise for soprano and piano to be performed at a concert in 1949 commemorating the hundredth anniversary of Chopin’s death. Depending on how one feels about the music of Chopin, one may be either intrigued or repelled, but all are hereby informed that the connection to Chopin is remote to the point of irrelevancy: Panufnik stated that he based his Hommage on the character of the folk music from the region of Poland where Chopin was born. The result is a short, five-movement suite that is now performable in its original form, in an arrangement for soprano with strings, and in versions for flute with piano or strings. But the music is instantly (and I mean instantly) recognizable as a creative product of the pre-1968 Panufnik, with its obsessive focus on major-minor harmonic effects (which I believe are more idiosyncratic to the composer than to the folk music he cites as influence), not to mention his highly rarefied sensibility. The three slow movements in particular, which alternate with two faster ones, are exquisite, evoking moods of spiritual reflection far deeper than what is suggested by the title. In many ways this piece is the most accessible point of entry into Panufnik’s unique expressive realm. There have been several previous recordings, all of them excellent, but none better than the one heard here.

The Rhapsody was composed in 1956—the first work Panufnik completed after his escape to England. Initially recorded in 1966 by the Louisville Orchestra, conducted by Robert Whitney, the piece never made a strong positive impression, although that was partially attributable to an unusually mediocre performance by the adventurous ensemble from Kentucky. This is made clearly evident by the meticulously refined performance offered on this new release. However, the work still must be regarded as only a partial success. It begins with a seemingly interminable series of unaccompanied solos in slow note values played by most of the orchestra’s first-chair players. This is followed by a fast and lively section, not unlike comparable passages in the composer’s first symphony, Sinfonia Rustica, treating some material that, while remaining within Panufnik’s distinctive sound-world, seems excessively trivial. The third and final section reprises the themes from the opening portion, now in a slow, majestic peroration of extraordinary beauty, which gradually diminishes to the near silence with which the work begins.

Perhaps the highlight of the recording is Autumn Music, one of Panufnik’s greatest works. Around 1968 Panufnik became pre-occupied with a dichotomous tension or polarity that underlay virtually all the music he composed thereafter. This polarity was expressed verbally in a variety of ways: impulse vs. design, emotion vs. construction, faith vs. reason, etc. The latter dimension was often controlled via a strict limitation to just a few intervals and the adherence to elaborate structural designs. In many cases, despite his assertions to the contrary, these concerns became a virtual obsession at the expense of emotional expression. But Autumn Music achieves precisely the balance between structural discipline and emotional expression that the composer continually insisted was his primary goal. Originally scored for chamber orchestra in 1962 in response the long, slow death of a friend, then revised three years later, the work, as suggested by its title, is a profound meditation on decline and disintegration. The 20-minute work proceeds at an exceedingly slow tempo, aside from two brief, rapid interludes, and contains some of the saddest music I have ever heard—strikingly original in its emotional evocation, with an astonishing sensitivity to unusual sonorities. I know of no other piece anything like it, and consider it sufficient reason to recommend this recording. A fine performance, released in 1971, was included on an all-Panufnik recording featuring the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Jascha Horenstein. However, this new release, revealing somewhat greater attention to nuances of phrasing, and boasting recorded sound of extraordinary clarity and richness—essential in view of the primary importance of the sonorous element to this work—must be said to supplant the Horenstein performance.

Panufnik’s Symphony No. 6, “Sinfonia Mistica,” was composed in 1977 and scored for small orchestra. This work was also previously recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra, but conducted by David Atherton. Scored for small orchestra, the symphony is one of those pieces from the period when the composer was consumed by abstract formal designs and strict applications of numerological concepts. It is based on a geometrical figure that highlights the number 6 and seems to reveal magical properties to the composer, serving as a generative symbol that controls virtually every aspect of its structure. While most of these post-1968 compositions seem to leave the shared language of musical expressiveness behind, this symphony is an exception. The listener uninterested in structural abstractions will encounter an appealing work with much the same attention to delicate, ethereal sonorities as reflected in the other pieces on the disc. The symphony may feel somewhat over-extended at 25 minutes, while it retains certain harmonic features familiar from the composer’s earlier compositions, but are often absent from his later work. This is perhaps the most accessible of his symphonies past No. 3.