by Walter Simmons
PANUFNIK: Thames Pageant. Invocation for Peace. King’s House School Choir; Thames Youth Ensemble conducted by Michael Stuckey. UNICORN UNS-264.
The repertoire of music designed to be performed and enjoyed by children is not an imposing one. Most such music tends to be simple-minded and, usually, patronizing as well. (In this regard, probably the most exceptional composer is Vincent Persichetti, who has produced works for students at many levels of proficiency and sophistication, most of which demonstrate an uncanny ability to penetrate the aesthetic propensities of youngsters without resorting to condescending ploys.) With his 1969 Thames Pageant Andrzej Panufnik ventured into this difficult realm and emerged with a strikingly successful large-scale work.
Working with a text supplied by his wife Camilla Jessel, Panufnik dedicated the Pageant to his two children, who have grown up alongside the River Thames. Intended as an educational as well as an artistic experience, the composition comprises seven sections, each of which highlights a particular subject associated with the river: Julius Caesar, St. Frideswide, London Bridge, the Magna Carta, Alexander Pope (a Panufnik favorite), fish, and the Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race. The work is scored for antiphonal children’s choirs and school orchestra. Throughout, Panufnik maintains a dignified simplicity, compensating for technical limitations with a wealth of imaginative and subtle ideas. (The march-like opening theme is so memorable that it imbeds itself in one’s mind inextricably after one hearing.) The extensive use of percussion instruments and a rhythmically inflected sprechstimme may suggest the educational music of the late Carl Orff, while the delicate sonorities of a (British) children’s choir may call Benjamin Britten to mind. But listeners familiar with Panufnik’s other, more complex works will find many of his trademarks here, albeit in somewhat simplified form: mixolydian mode with variable third degree, melodies accompanied by open fifths, and strict canonic devices.
The brief Invocation for Peace is based on a melody used originally in an early work—Symphony for Peace—later withdrawn. In 1972 Panufnik rearranged the tune for children’s choir and small student ensemble. This piece belongs to the composer’s instantly recognizable hymn-like style, its straightforward, sincere melody joined by an accompaniment bursting with the ubiquitous major-minor juxtapositions.
The performances of these works are exceptionally good, by and large. The only major criticism is that distinguishing the words was quite difficult. Text and notes, supposed to be enclosed, were missing from my copy. Surfaces and sound were excellent.
Perhaps the appeal of a record like this is limited. But on the other hand, it is ideal for music teachers and for parents who want to offer their children an artistic experience of high quality. There is much here for adult listeners to appreciate as well, and Panufnik devotees will certainly not be disappointed. (Panufnik, like Hovhaness, Pettersson, and several other contemporaries, seems to inspire a sort of voracious insatiability among his fans.) Unicorn, which has recorded nine of his works, reportedly has another disc, including the brilliant Concerto Festivo, in the wings. And the English company Hyperion is scheduled to release Sinfonia Votiva (his eighth symphony), recently commissioned and performed by Ozawa and the Boston Symphony. (For comments on past Panufnik releases, see Fanfare II:4, pp. 89-90; IV:2, pp. 152-3.)