Sunday, 13 May 2012

Panufnik: Polish spirit in another land

Andrzej Panufnik (1914-1991) was a Polish composer who defected to the United Kingdom in 1954. He went, to use a popular phrase, from hero (acclaim in Poland) to zero (being ignored in the UK) overnight. His music is of exceptional quality, however, and his ill luck shouldn't blind us to that fact. (By another twist of fate, his daughter, Roxanna, has now become quite a popular composer.)

The place to begin with Andrzej Panufnik is with his glorious Sinfonia Sacra (his third symphony). This masterpiece has something of the punch and the patriotic fervour of Janáček's Sinfonietta - but you don't have to be Polish to find it stirring! It falls into two parts. Part 1 begins with 'Vision I' for four trumpets, music of fanfares and fourths. This is followed immediately by 'Vision II', where the strings sing serenely and mysteriously (reminding me a little of the string writing in Charles Ives's The Unanswered Question). Then comes 'Vision III', an exciting scherzo begun by a thwack from the timpani. Part 2 consists of just one section, 'Hymn' - another serene section that begins high in the strings and grows in power, becoming ever more hymn-like until the four trumpets return to bring the symphony to a rousing climax. The symphony grows thematically from a five-note cell. This motif, however, is taken from the hymn towards which the symphony moves. The cell is twisted and turned, rather in the manner of interval-based constructivism of Bartok, and from this motivic development a symphony is built. Such a beautiful, noble work should be heard far and wide.

For a fabulous concerto, please try his masterly Violin Concerto. This has a pronounced Polish character with folkish elements to the fore from the very start, where the intervals of the fourth and fifth dominate the soloist's introduction. When the string orchestra enters enters pizzicato below the violin's high solo line you know that something special is under way. Bartok's brand of passionate motivic logic is Panufnik's friend here, so certain intervals dominate the action, shaping all the melodies and all the linking passages. Thirds are key players and, with fourths, guide the wonderfully expressive second subject. This 'Rubato' section is followed by an 'Andante', where another thirds-based theme rocks back and forth between major and minor. It sounds to me like a wistful lullaby. With the appearance of a stepwise melody the concerto very beautifully soars into harmonics until the lullaby begins again. Gorgeous, isn't it? The soloist begins to dance before a tender, longing tune enters, climaxing magically with an orchestral statement. A solo 'cadenza' drifts downwards and a movingly-harmonised passage rises upwards again. This is lovely, mystical music.  The 'Vivace' finale is a release of energy after all this gentleness. It is exciting stuff, which fans of Bartok's wilder side will appreciate, and only stops for a recitative-like passage for the soloist, each phrase of which is answered by the strings in a surprising way. Again rigorously constructed and interval-driven it manages to the dance-like and melodically appealing. 

A short orchestral work, his Katyn Epitaph, is a touching threnody that seems like a bleak look back towards the quieter sections of the Sinfonia Sacra. Very beautiful.

Please also try his excellent Nocturne for orchestra. This is an eerie affair in an arch-like single movement, a ghostly take on the essence of Mahler perhaps. It begins and ends with a procession of percussion and high, mysterious strings, effectively generating a nocturnal atmosphere. The initial tense mood persists as the strings moves ever higher over growling brass. A pause brings a beautiful, serene string passage (akin to that found in the Sinfonia Sacra again). Brass re-enter and dispel this luminous vision with a crescendo that leads to a remarkable passage with a drummed accompaniment that sounds half-march half-waltz and which has a nightmarish quality. A magnificent climax is reached and a solo trumpet braves the din. Ivesian/Mahlerian serenity begins to flow back in but the eerie mood of the opening follows and regains control. 

Another piece I hope you'll enjoy is Song to the Virgin Mary, an arrangement the composer made for string sextet of an earlier piece for voices. Here that peaceful, hymn-like side of Panufnik is heard at its simplest and most affecting, rising into passionate affirmation from time to time. An absolute gem.

Another Virgin Mary-inspired work is the late Sinfonia Votiva (his eighth symphony). This is a tougher yet still fascinating score where Panufnik's interval-based processes are put to use in an unusual two-part structure - unusual in that the second movement is a much faster version of the first. At the start, various solo woodwinds begin to unfold a gentle, supplicant melody against the accompaniment of a vibraphone. The melody changes shape and colour again and again until it becomes another song to the Virgin Mary. The second movement is a far fiercer affair and has an ending which I think will surprise you. It is said to have been written in the spirit of protest.

A wonderful composer then. And if those pieces have whetted your appetite...

Other pieces to explore:

String Quartet No.2, Messages
Concertino for Timpani, Percussion and Strings
Symphony No. 9 'Sinfonia della Speranza'
Autumn Music
Arbor Cosmica
Piano Concerto

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