by Walter Simmons
PANUFNIK: Concerto Festivo. Concertino. Landscape. Katyri Epitaph. Kurt-Hans Goedicke, timpani; Michael Frye, percussion (Concertino); London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andrzej Panufnik. UNICORN-KANCHANA DKP-9016 (digital), produced by Morton Winding.
During the 20 years or so that I have been following the music of Andrzej Panufnik, his international stature has grown considerably. When I chose Panufnik as a subject for my graduate work, his strange, unfamiliar name provided an inexhaustible stimulus for ridicule among the faculty at my highly esteemed conservatory. (However, after I left, I was told that the Sinfonia Sacra had become part of the orchestration curriculum.) In the meantime, nearly all of Panufnik’s major works have found themselves on disc—and in first-rate performances and recordings. Many of these recordings have been discussed in Fanfare (11:4, pp. 89-90; IV:2, pp. 152-3; V:6, pp. 164-5). Virtually all of them exhibit remarkable care in production, right down to the jacket designs, which are always unusually tasteful, and the liner notes, which are extremely literate and informative. Now, in recent months, two new digital recordings appear: one, a Hyperion disc (A66050) featuring Panufnik’s new Sinfonia Votiva (backed by Sessions’ Concerto for Orchestra) performed by the Boston Symphony under Ozawa; and the other, the disc at hand.
Although Panufnik is one of today’s most fascinating and provocative composers, he has also proven to be a rather uneven one—indeed, the music itself often fails to live up to the meticulous packaging (e.g., the EMI recording of the Violin Concerto and Sinfonia Concertante and the Decca Head recording of Sinfonia di Sfere and Sinfonia Mistica). The composer is prone to issuing pious statements affirming his dedication to a balance between significant poetic content and a strong autonomous structure. Of course, few composers would be so foolish as to reject such an artistic imperative, but to achieve it is not so easy. Panufnik’s approach entails the creation of elaborate quasi-mystical structural designs, with materials limited strictly to the most rigorously controlled intervallic cells. But an element of self-delusion seems to underlie his noble intentions. Often there is no balance: The structural machinery simply seizes control and generates a rigidly dehumanized bore, either preciously rarefied or numbingly banal (or both: Sinfonia Votiva offers a movement of each—caveat emptor!). On the whole, disappointingly few of his works have reached the transcendental heights of Sinfonia Sacra, Autumn Music, or Sinfonia Elegiaca (which really deserves a more polished recorded performance).
However, Panufnik enthusiasts should find this new Unicorn disc, produced with the considerable help of Shell UK, to be one of the more rewarding additions to his catalog. The two large works here are the most recent, the Concerto Festivo and Concertino dating from 1979 and 1980, respectively. Concerto Festivo, commissioned for the London Symphony Orchestra, is a sort of “concerto for orchestra,” Panufnik-style. While not especially profound, it is far more rewarding than others of the composer’s “showpiece” works, such as the Rhapsody, and presents his unmistakable language, with its strange bittersweet harmony and motivic obsessiveness, in a pleasing context.
The Concertino for timpani, percussion, and strings is a more introspective work. While not an instant knockout, here the strange idiosyncrasies— economy of gesture, simplicity of materials, and sophistication of structure—are held in exquisite balance, and the magic works, conveying the sort of breathtaking subtlety and extraordinary sonic imagination found in Autumn Music. This is perhaps the most successful of Panufnik’s recent compositions.
The two shorter pieces, Landscape and Katyn Epitaph, date from the 1960s. Each displays the “sound” that is most easily and directly associated with Panufnik—a deeply elegiac tone and rich, triadic harmony, widely spaced, with prominent major-minor blends. After the “Hymn” from Sinfonia Sacra, which carries this effect to its apotheosis, anything of the kind appears anticlimactic. Nevertheless, these two pieces are haunting and moving enough in their own rights.
As usual, everything else about this deluxe release—performances, sound quality, surfaces, jacket design, liner notes—is splendid.