PANUFNIK: String Quartets: No. 1; No. 2, “Messages”; No. 3, “Wycinanki”. String Sextet. Song to the Virgin Mary.

PANUFNIK  String Quartet: No. 1; No. 2, “Messages”; No. 3,  Wycinanki”. String Sextet.  Song to the Virgin Mary.  Chilingirian String Quartet et al. CONIFER 74321-16190-2 [DDD]; 72:23. Produced by John Kehoe and Tryggvi Tryggvason.

The Polish-English composer Sir Andrzej Panufnik 1914-1991) is best known for his orchestral music, centering around symphonies, of which the best-known is the striking and deeply moving third, Sinfonia Sacra. Among other qualities, these works display an extraordinary sensitivity to subtleties of instrumental color. Hence this recent release, which features three string quartets and two string sextets, prompts curiosity as to how this timbre-oriented composer handled the relatively monochrome nature of the small string ensemble. Except for the Song to the Virgin Mary, the music on this disc dates from the last 15 years of Panufnik’s life, a period during which his much-quoted purpose of striving for a balance between depth of expressive content and perfection of formal design often leaned in the latter direction. Thus one might anticipate some rather harsh, thankless listening. But this is not the case, although most of the music may make a rather forbidding impression on initial acquaintance.

Exceptional among the pieces is the earlier Song to the Virgin Mary, originally composed during the mid 1960s for voices a capella. The composer’s stated intention was “to evoke the adoration, warmth and pure faith of the Polish peasant, Panufnik arranged the work for string sextet in 1987, shortly after completing the Sextet, “Trains of Thought.” The Song is a hauntingly beautiful work, sounding like no other composer familiar to those who know Panufnik’s Katyn Epitaph, Invocation for Peace, and the second and third symphonies. Like these other works, it displays modal, hymnlike melodic material, an obsessive preoccupation with variable third and seventh scale steps in both melodic and harmonic contexts, and a gradually mounting sense of rapturous serenity. These are the musical materials and expressive content that have attracted so much attention to this composer, not unlike the contemplative spirituality of so much recent music from Eastern Europe. By the 1970s Panufnik had begun to move away from such a circumscribed palette, although aspects of this language continued to appear in later works, and can be heard in those presented here. However, the listener will find this aspect of Panufnik’s work in its purest form in this ardently reverent work.

The later works on this disc, though aiming at a similarly contemplative, elevated manner of expression, move beyond the bimodally colored diatonicism of Panufnik’s earlier music to a broader, more chromatic and dissonant, less resolutely tonal musical language. String Quartet No. 1, dating from the late 1970s, falls into three sections, called “Prelude, Transformations, and Postlude.” Although some may be repelled by the severity of the “Prelude,” with its angular, unaccompanied solos, and by the Carter-like notion of giving each instrument its own individual and consistent character, the deeply introspective “Transformations” bring the listener into Panufnik’s unique ethereal realm, revealing the breadth of his imagination and validating the authenticity and sincerity of the work’s conceptual structure.

String Quartet No. 2, composed in 1980, carries the cryptic subtitle, “Messages,” and comprises a single 20-minute movement. Though its initial impression is even more forbidding than that of its predecessor, the language is really no more impenetrable than that of, say, Bartok’s third or fourth quartets. Its mode of discourse is quite abstract and introspective, without overt emotional implication, yet its varying levels of tonal tension and contrasting rates of motion gradually convey a gratifying sense of pure musicality. Again, the more familiar with it one becomes, the more masterful it seems and the more deeply satisfying it is to experience, although its rarefied mode of expression is likely to limit the number of those who will appreciate it.

String Quartet No. 3 is a shorter piece, and is somewhat less challenging to the listener. Composed as a contest piece in 1991, the work bears the subtitle, “Wycinanki,” referring to the Polish folk-art of paper-cutting, which Panufnik used to stimulate his imagination while creating this work. The quartet comprises five miniature studies, each focussing on a different technical challenge for the players. Some of these sound a little mechanical, as Panufnik’s music does when his compositional concept seems to constrict his imagination, but others, especially the last, display the composer’s special mode of spiritual fervor. Panufnik built the String Sextet, “Trains of Thought,” over a simple ostinato pattern that continues, unchanging, throughout the entire work, in an attempt to evoke the notion of one’s reflections while traveling by train, lulled by its monotonous rhythm. The sextet, dating from 1987, calls a number of other pieces to mind, such as Honegger’s Pacific 231, Steve Reich’s Different Trains, Harry Partch’s U.S. Highball, and Panufnik’s own early Tragic Overture. The first three attempt to evoke railroad imagery through a variety of ostinato techniques, while last is another instance of Panufnik’s own single-minded treatment of a simple rhythmic pattern. While the sextet is somewhat effective in fulfilling its intention, the danger for such pieces is boredom, and Panufnik cannot be said to have escaped this, although the work’s monotony is not quite as fatal as it is in the Tragic Overture.

The Chilingirian Quartet (with added members for the sextets plays these pieces with considerable polish and great attention to both technical precision and expressive nuance. At times the music’s extraordinary demands, especially in the Quartet No. 2, seem to tax the group to their limits, but it would be hard to find a quartet capable of such consummated performances of such difficult and unfamiliar music. Though not the best starting point for a discovery of Panufnik’s music, this disc is indispensable for those already captivated by his other works.

Although Panufnik cannot be said to have achieved household-name familiarity, his reputation has benefited greatly from his recorded representation, with a discography notable for comprehensiveness, quality of performances, and meticulousness of production and annotation. Yet a couple of the composer’s most compelling works remain unavailable on recording: the very brief but unforgettably haunting Lullaby for 29 strings and 2 harps, which features quarter-tones and was first piece to attract international attention, and the Symphony No. 2, Sinfonia Elegiaca, which rivals the Sinfonia Sacra in depth and immediacy of emotional expression. I look forward to their appearance soon.