PANUFNIK Symphony No. 2, “Sinfonia Elegiaca.” Symphony No. 3, “Sinfonia Sacra.” Symphony No. 10

PANUFNIK  Symphony No. 2, “Sinfonia Elegiaca.” Symphony No. 3, “Sinfonia Sacra.” Symphony No. 10 ● Łukasz Borowicz, cond; Berlin Konzerthaus O ● cpo 777 683-2 (62:09)

This is a definite contender and likely choice for my 2012 Want List. The fourth volume in what appears to be a comprehensive survey of the orchestral music of Andrzej Panufnik, this new release offers two works that are among those few that represent the composer at his most distinctive and most appealing. In fact, I believe that these two—the first two listed above—are among the most exalted and profoundly moving European works of the mid 20th century. Because it is very relevant here, I will incorporate portions of my description of Panufnik’s stylistic phases, taken from an earlier review.

Virtually all of Panufnik’s music was destroyed during World War II, although he did attempt to reconstruct some of the lost works. Thus 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 mid-to-late 1960s. This 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 curious focus on extremely minimal motivic elements that are treated to exhaustive developmental procedures. Most of the music from this period has a haunting, eerie, bittersweet quality—strikingly individual and, at its best, achieves an unforgettable impact.

One such piece is the Symphony No. 2, “Sinfonia Elegiaca.” This work initially appeared in 1951, with the title Symphony of Peace, and was introduced by Leopold Stokowski in Detroit in 1955. However, Panufnik was dissatisfied with the work and overhauled it significantly. The resulting Sinfonia Elegiaca was completed in 1957, and introduced the following year by the Houston Symphony, again led by the composer’s devoted advocate Stokowski. This version was recorded in 1961 by the Louisville Orchestra, under the direction of Robert Whitney. Whitney was another who was drawn to Panufnik’s remarkably individual musical language, but, for some reason, this was one of his less successful performances. For reasons I have never been able to fathom, despite the large number of Panufnik recordings to have appeared during the past 50 years, there has never been another recording of this beautiful work—until now. In 1966 Panufnik made another substantial revision of Elegiaca, and, of course, it is this final revision that we hear on the new recording. The work, dedicated to the victims of World War II, falls into three continuous sections: the first, slow and mournful, the second, agitated and violent, but with a hauntingly poignant melody within it, and the third, a return to the doleful cast of the opening. The 1966 revisions are relatively minor in the outer portions of the work, but the central section was altered significantly—largely, so it seems, to intensify onomatopoeic suggestions of bellicosity. I must confess that as a passionate admirer of this work in its 1957 form for half a century now, I find that the revisions require some re-adjustment of expectations. However the performance offered here is extraordinarily precise and emotionally committed, finally realizing the expressive power of this extraordinary symphony, which fulfills its eponymous elegiac character as consummately as any work I know. I regret having to voice one complaint: While the three sections of the work are intended to be played without pause, they are separated on this recording by rather lengthy breaks.

In 1963 Panufnik completed his Symphony No. 3, “Sinfonia Sacra.” It is arguably the composer’s masterpiece, and has become his most widely performed work. A composition of amazing individuality, originality, and conviction, it is not at all difficult to grasp and enjoy on initial exposure, although with increasing familiarity one finds more aspects to appreciate. Sinfonia Sacra was composed as a tribute to Poland’s millennium—one thousand years of statehood and Christianity. The entire work is based on the first few notes of “Bogurodzica,” an ancient Polish hymn that served both religious and patriotic functions. The symphony reflects this dual significance in its unusual structure: two movements, the first comprising three “Visions,” the second entitled “Hymn.” The three visions are martial, ethereal, and violent, respectively; the unfolding of the Hymn, which grows with an insinuating deliberateness that is almost painful in its protraction, culminates in an ecstatically cathartic peroration that unites all the elements of the work. Although I am far from alone in my enthusiasm for this symphony, its exposure on the international music scene does not seem to have reached the “tipping point” achieved by, say, Gorecki’s Third Symphony, although I believe Panufnik’s is a far more impressive and deeply moving work—both this and Elegiaca, in fact—and no less accessible to the general listener.

There have been a number of recordings of Sinfonia Sacra, two of them conducted by Panufnik himself. For the past two decades the preferred recording has featured the composer conducting the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, on a release from Elektra/Nonesuch. However, this recording has been officially unavailable for some time, although copies can still be found on Amazon. But I must admit that the fervent performance on this new cpo release stands alongside that one without apology or concession. And coupled with Sinfonia Elegiaca, the disc becomes an imperative acquisition for all followers of accessible yet profound works of 20th-century repertoire—and certainly for all admirers of the Gorecki Third. 

Listeners who become enamored of these two works and wonder what else of comparable stature the composer may have written are advised to seek out Autumn Music, which may be found on Volume III of this excellent series on cpo. 

In 1968, with the Universal Prayer, Panufnik’s musical language underwent a dramatic shift. According to program notes by Christoph Schlüren, having made his home in England, and having achieved considerable success there and in the United States, the composer was trying “to reduce the power of his strong Polish roots in his music.” This new phase of his musical creativity endured for the remainder of his life, although some commentators may propose further subdivisions. In this later style Panufnik’s sensitivity to sonority was heightened somewhat, while a fascination with complex structural blueprints expanded to become the dominant element of the music. These structures and their development tended not to provide the sense of dynamic progression common to most Western classical music, but, rather, produced 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 became irrelevant and often non-existent, while the concern with major-minor effects disappeared almost 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.

In 1988, on a commission from Georg Solti and the Chicago Symphony, Panufnik completed his tenth and final symphony—the only one not to append a descriptive subtitle. At 16 minutes it is the shortest of his symphonies, I believe. The work opens slowly, with tonal melodic material, against which are juxtaposed dissonant permutations of a three-note cell, unrelated tonally to the melodic idea. The work gradually increases in intensity and rate of activity, displaying a resemblance to both the central section of Sinfonia Elegiaca and “Vision III” from Sinfonia Sacra. A climax is reached, followed by a sudden drop in volume and activity that heralds the final section, scored in the composer’s most ethereal manner. Described by the annotator as “prayer-like,” the conclusion is hushed and delicate, although its harmonic language lacks the poignancy found in his earlier works. But the Symphony No. 10 is one of the composer’s more effective later works.

The many virtues of this recording are complemented by extraordinarily rich and vivid sound quality, which is essential for music so dominated by the element of sonority.