PANUFNIK: Symphony No. 9, “Sinfonia della Speranza”; Concerto for Piano and Orchestra.

by Walter Simmons

PANUFNIK: Symphony No. 9, “Sinfonia della Speranza”; Concerto for Piano and Orchestra. Ewa Poblocka, piano; Sir Andrzej Panufnik conducting the London Symphony Orchestra. CONIFER CDCF-206 [DDD]; 64:59. Produced by John Kehoe. (Distributed by Allegro Imports)

Andrzej Panufnik died in October, 1991, at the age of 77. By that time he had completed ten symphonies, among many other works, had been knighted in the country in which he had lived for nearly 40 years, and, during the last decade of his life, his music had developed a considerable international following. Panufnik was a very strange composer, unclassifiable as a member of any stylistic camp. (Perhaps the closest comparison might be the late Olivier Messiaen.) Apparently viewing his creative work as both a moral and an aesthetic imperative, Panufnik appended to much of his music extrinsic references of a humanitarian nature. At the same time, as is well known to all who have looked into his work, he loved to set for himself elaborate formal designs, unrelated to classical prototypes, that guided the creation of each piece. While always insisting in his elegantly written program notes that the poetic content of a work was of primary concern, he placed great importance on these formal designs, often including a detailed graphic representation for the benefit of the listener. In most of his earlier music — say, through the mid-1960s — the thematic material was melodic in origin, often traceable to Polish folk melos. However, in many of his later works, Panufnik’s formal designs governed the choice of basic pitch material, as well as shaping the larger structure. The result was often music the rigor of whose compositional method seemed to have choked off any expressive content. This is not to suggest anything as simplistic as that Panufnik abandoned tonality for atonality, but rather that the issue of a tonal versus atonal language became irrelevant, subsumed within the self-imposed rigors of his structural plans. What I have found particularly baffling is that the period during which Panufnik’s work has achieved its broadest recognition has been the period during which his music was making the fewest concessions to audience preferences for melodic phraseology, harmonic tension-resolution, and palpable rhythmic pulsation. Not that Panufnik’s music became completely formalized and dessicated; he never abandoned his extraordinary sensitivity to subtleties of instrumental timbre, for example. But for me, Panufnik’s strongest, most memorable works remain the Symphony No. 2, “Sinfonia Elegiaca,” Symphony No. 3, “Sinfonia Sacra,” and Autumn Music. (All are represented on fine CD recordings except for “Elegiaca,” which has never been recorded except for a mediocre Louisville performance from the early 1960s.)

The Symphony No. 9, “Sinfonia della Speranza” is a most ambitious work. Composed in 1986 and revised in 1990, it consists of one extended 40-minute movement, constructed according to the structural metaphor of a rainbow whose tonal arcs pass symmetrically through a three-note prism whose influence is experienced throughout. (This very abbreviated description gives some idea of Panufnik’s modus operandi. but, of course, no idea of the sound of the music itself.) The work is permeated by a strongly tonal melody, but one whose harmonic context is contradictory — if not unrelated — to its tonal identity and whose rhythmic structure lacks any sense of spontaneous motion. Despite its tonal melodic emphasis, its striking sonorities, its strong, confident gestures, and the composer’s talk of “spiritual messages” and a “spectrum of feelings and emotions,” the music itself emerges as rigid, static, and expressively neutral, while nonetheless achieving a strangely abstract sense of monumentality. It is clearly not a work to be grasped or evaluated easily.

Panufnik’s Piano Concerto, composed in 1962 but revised twenty years later, is an equally strange and inscrutable work. It is conventional enough in its external form, with two rapid movements flanking a slow contemplative centerpiece. But the piano writing is most unusual, in the fast movements consisting primarily of lean, angular patterns repeated in a mechanical, sequential manner. The second movement is very slow and ethereal, the piano, for the most part, tolling single notes at disjunct intervals against a very sparse instrumental backdrop. This movement offers some very beautiful hushed moments, featuring Panufnik’s favorite delicate sonorities and the major-minor harmonic conflicts that permeated much of his earlier music.

The recording, sponsored by Technics Hi-Fi, is of the highest quality. The performances are fine — presumably and explicitly definitive, although intended echo effects toward the beginning of the symphony fail to emerge successfully due to misjudged balances. The composer himself selected Ms. Poblocka as pianist for the concerto. As is almost always true for a new Panufnik recording, the annotations — by the composer’s most articulate advocate, Bernard Jacobson, by Panufnik himself, and by producer Kehoe — are comprehensive, lucid, and extravagantly laudatory.