by Walter Simmons
PANUFNIK: Symphony No. 1, “Sinfonia Rustica.” Autumn Music. Nocturne. Tragic Overture. Heroic Overture. Andrzej Panufnik cond; Monte Carlo Opera Orchestra. Jascha Horenstein cond; London SO. UNICORN-KANCHANA UKCD 2016; 71:11. Produced by Harold Lawrence.
PANUFNIK: Symphony No. 3, “Sinfonia Sacra.” Arbor Cosmica. Andrzej Panufnik cond; Concertgebouw Orchestra, Amsterdam, New York Chamber SO; NONESUCH 9 79228-2; 58:27.
PANUFNIK: Concerto for Violin and Strings. Concerto for Bassoon and Orchestra. Hommage àChopin. Mark Stephenson, cond; London Musici; Krzysztof Smietana, violin; Robert Thompson, bassoon; Karon Jones, flute. CONIFER CDCF 182; 50:00. Produced by John Kelso, Mark Brown.
For approximately thirty-live years, since his immigration to England at age forty, Andrzej Panufnik has been slowly but steadily building an international reputation as one of the most original, individual, and compelling composers of his generation—one whose music reveals very few stylistic antecedents, partakes hardly at all of traditional expressive rhetoric, yet makes an emotional impact on the general listener quickly and directly. When I first discovered Panufnik’s music—through the Symphony No. 2, “Sinfonia Elegiaca”—more than twenty-five years ago, his name was virtually unknown in the United States; however, I was instantly struck by both the individuality and the expressive immediacy of his work. By now his music has been performed by many of the world’s most eminent soloists, orchestras, and conductors; most of his major compositions have been made available in excellent performances on handsomely produced recordings. Accompanying (and contributing to) his growing reputation have been eloquent annotations on his works by articulate, erudite admirers, as well as elegant commentaries by the composer himself. These three CDs contain ten substantial compositions dating from 1942 to 1985; two are among his greatest works. The performances are consistently superb, offering a fine representation of the various facets of this unusual and often perplexing composer.
In his program notes, Panufnik has always stressed the importance of both a compelling spiritual impetus and the “self-imposed discipline” provided by a strict structural schema based on limited means—usually a few specified pitch intervals. At its best, Panufnik’s music fulfills both self-determined requirements, creating a fresh and original aesthetic approach that has given rise to remarkably constructed works imbued with profound emotional content. However, in other works, rigid application of such compositional constraints strangles the expressive dimension, with results that sound compulsive and mechanical, suggesting a sort of proto-minimalism. Many works suffer from this constriction to one extent or another; some arc sabotaged by it altogether.
Panufnik’s music exhibits a characteristic “sound,” which crystalized during the 1950s and 60s. Its distinctive elements are: diatonic melodic lines, sometimes inflected by slides and quarter-tones, 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 simple polytonality and an almost obsessively ubiquitous 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. Toward the late 1960s, Panufnik began to broaden his language, as more stringent applications of his structural concepts gave rise to more dissonant, less tonally rooted harmonic combinations. While these innovations expanded a harmonic vocabulary that was in danger of overuse to the point of mannerism, the musical results have often sounded contrived and sterile.
Tragic Overture, the earliest of the works offered here, was originally written in 1942, although it was destroyed in the Warsaw uprising against the Nazis and had to be reconstructed later on. It is a very strange piece, displaying in somewhat primitive form the “proto-minimalism” noted earlier. The work’s continuous multi-layered texture is permeated by a four-note intervallic/rhythmic motif that appears sequentially in both diminution and augmentation. Exhibiting some rather evocative examples of wartime onomatopoeia, the piece creates an effect that is either ominous and eerie or monotonous and mechanical, depending on the disposition of the listener, rather than “tragic.”
A more elaborate piece is the Nocturne, composed in 1947. A sort of surrealistic dreamscape, the work begins in ethereal wisps, building gradually to a gigantic, dissonant cataclysm, then receding and concluding as it began. Major-minor conflicts pervade, perhaps excessively so. The orchestration is brilliant, with some striking use of piano and horn.
“Sinfonia Rustica” is the first of Panufnik’s extant symphonies (which now number ten), each of which is appended with an evocative subtitle. “Sinfonia Rustica” was composed in 1948 and revised several years later. Its impact is relatively mundane, in comparison to the composer’s norm, its ambitions generally modest, its concerns primarily folkloric. This straightforward simplicity will give to listeners largely familiar with Panufnik’s later symphonies a revealing insight into aspects of his compositional technique. The formal structure of the symphony is thoroughly conventional, providing little more than a scaffolding on which to drape the Polish folk melodies that are its chief focus. However, despite its less personal objectives, it is recognizable as a work of Panufnik virtually from the outset—not only through its idiosyncratic harmonic language, but also through certain banal, mechanical oversymmetries that seem almost amateurishly simplistic. The slow movement, on the other hand, is haunting and beautiful, while the orchestration is characteristically luminescent and vivid throughout.
Hommage a Chopin was originally written for soprano and piano in 1949, and was rescored for flute and strings some years later. In much the same vein as the “Sinfonia Rustica,” the work resembles Chopin about as much as the music of Steve Reich does. However, it is based on Polish folk melodies from the region where Chopin was born—hence, the title. It is a lovely piece in five short movements and a welcome addition to the easy-on-the-ears flute-and-strings repertoire also graced by compositions like Foote’s Night Piece, Hanson’s Serenade, Bloch’s Suite Module, Creston’s Partita, and Rosner’s A Gentle Musicke.
Heroic Overture, a work prompted by patriotic political concerns, was completed in 1952 and draws upon a pandiatonicism and polytonality derived from Stravinsky, with melodic material coincidentally reminiscent of Copland. This is another baffling work—baffling largely because its incongruous, American-Cowboy banality is difficult to understand, coming from a composer whose intentions are as lofty as Panufnik’s usually are. The composer’s voice is heard most clearly in a series of ascending canonic sequences that seem compulsively over-extended,
The remaining works were composed after Panufnik’s escape front Poland to England in 1954. Autumn Music is, along with “Sinfonia Elegiaca” and “Sinfonia Sacra,” one of the composer’s indisputable masterpieces—a meditation on the metaphorical implications of autumn, inspired by a friend’s terminal illness. It was composed for chamber orchestra during the late 1950s and early 60s. In it spiritual content, formal structure, and sonority unite in a work of exquisite beauty and originality. One can point to such unforgettable passages as the doleful pendulum-like tolling of the piano’s lowest B as the double bass bows in unison, as accompaniment to the elegy that forms the centerpiece of the work, or to the enormous variety of meticulously devised percussion timbres that are heard throughout, but such enumerations cannot convey the extraordinary impact of the piece itself. Autumn Music simply must be heard.
The same can be said for the Symphony No. 3, “Sinfonia Sacra,” which appeared in 1963. Like much of Panufnik’s music, this work was inspired by intense patriotic feelings, and is constructed around an ancient Polish hymn that carries both military and religious connotations. Thus, some portions of the symphony are martial in character, while others are spiritual. The work comprises two movements, of which the first is in three sections, or “Visions,” The second movement is called “Hymn” and builds gradually from an ethereal solo in violin harmonics to an ecstatically cathartic peroration that unites all the elements of the work. Admirers of, say, Gorecki’s Third Symphony are urged to make the acquaintance of “Sinfonia Sacra.”
Panufnik’s “Sinfonia Sacra” was first recorded in 1967 by the Monte Carlo Opera Orchestra on EMI ASD-2298, together with the same performance of “Sinfonia Rustica” reviewed here. That recording was re-issued about ten years ago on Unicorn UN1-75026. Panufnik himself, an experienced conductor and persuasive exponent of his own music, led the performances. While the reading of the more modest “Sinfonia Rustica” is fine, the Monte Carlo Opera Orchestra was somewhat overtaxed by the demands for subtle control and endurance made by “Sinfonia Sacra.” Thus the appearance of this magnificent work in a brilliant new recording, featuring the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam under the composer’s direction, is an event of some significance (see Want List).
Panufnik composed his Concerto for Violin and Strings in 1971 at the request of Yehudi Menuhin, who introduced the work and later recorded it (EMI EMD-5525). In truth, that performance was pretty unpleasant, and is duly overshadowed by this smooth, refined, and accurate new rendition featuring the Polish violinist Krzysztof Smietana. The concerto is unusual in both style and form—primarily lyrical in character, with the violin almost constantly in the forefront. The second movement is quite beautiful, though the composer’s arbitrary intervallic fetishes make the outer movements sound a little silly at times.
Arbor Cosmica is one of Panufnik’s most highly praised recent works. Composed in 1983 for twelve string instruments, it consists of twelve sections, or “Evocations,” and lasts more than a half hour. The entire work is derived from a single three-note chord, according to an elaborate construct developed analogically to the structure of a tree. Arbor Cosmica is a major work, in many ways a summation of Panufnik’s evolution since the late 1960s. Its harmonic language is much broader and more varied than that found in the works of the 1950s and early 60s, yet traces of vintage Panufnik appear frequently. Each “Evocation” exhibits a particular pattern of gestures, or motion-states, that remains static in character throughout, despite pitch lines that ascend and descend. Thus, the effect is of a succession of these static motion-states, without any sense of dramatic progression from one to the next. The work maintains interest primarily through its richly varied and imaginative string writing. The performance, featuring the New York Chamber Symphony under the composer’s direction, is superb.
The most recent work offered here is the 1985 Bassoon Concerto, dedicated to Father Jerzy Popieluszko, who was tortured to death in 1984 by the Polish secret police. Its five movements are structured rather like an operatic scene, with a Prologue, two Recitatives, an extraordinarily beautiful Aria half the length of the entire work, and a concluding Epilogue. It is quite an unusual concerto, played expertly here by Robert Thompson, an American bassoonist who was instrumental in commissioning the piece and has performed it many times throughout the world.
I hope that I have not confused the reader by discussing these works in chronological order, rather than disc by disc. Admirers of Panufnik will find all three indispensable, as each is a meticulous production—beautifully recorded and eloquently annotated. The Horenstein performances on the Unicorn-Kanchana disc date from 1971 and are exceedingly fine. The Conifer disc was sponsored by Technics Hi-Fi, who deserve considerable praise for their substantial efforts.