Wednesday 26 March 2014

First rate performances of orchestral works by Panufnik in the latest instalment of CPO’s symphonic works cycle

CPO are doing a great service to the memory of the composer Andrzej Panufnik whose centenary falls this year. Volume 7 of their cycle of symphonic works by the composer has just been released featuring Sinfonia di Sfere (Symphony No.5), the Bassoon Concerto, Love Song and the orchestral impression, Landscape.

Łukasz Borowicz conducted the Konzerthausorchestrer Berlin and Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra,Orkiestra  with bassoonist, Michael von Schönermark and mezzo-soprano, Sarah van der Kemp


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Andrzej Panufnik (1914-1991) was born in Warsaw on 24th September 1914, Panufnik started to compose at the age of nine. He graduated from the Warsaw Conservatoire with Distinction in both composition and conducting. He studied conducting with Felix Weingartner at the Vienna Academy before studying French Impressionist composers with Philippe Gaubert in Paris. Just before the outbreak of World War II, Panufnik returned to Warsaw where, despite the Nazi occupation of Warsaw, he conducted illegal concerts and composed patriotic resistance songs.  During the war he lost most of his close relatives, as well as every note of music he had composed in his first thirty years.

In 1945 Panufnik was appointed chief conductor of the Kraków Philharmonic Orchestra, having to seek out orchestral players scattered all over Poland.  In 1946 he was similarly asked to restore the Warsaw Philharmonic. In the early post-war years, he began to reconstruct his lost works, but eventually kept only three restored works, his Five Polish Peasant Songs, the Piano Trio, Op.1 and Tragic Overture. Established as the father of the Polish avant-garde, he won international admiration and honours in his own country. 

By 1948, Panufnik’s situation changed dramatically. As Poland’s leading composer, greatly respected throughout Europe, he was under intense pressure from the requirement to conform to Soviet Realism.  Many of his compositions were condemned as ‘western, bourgeois, decadent.’  In 1949, the centenary of Chopin’s death, he was elected Vice-President of the Music Council of UNESCO but was never allowed to attend any ceremonies or concerts. Creatively stifled by restrictions and political pressures, he ceased to be able to compose. 

In 1954 he escaped from Poland settling in England. His music was banned in Poland for the following 23 years. From 1957 to 1959 he served as Chief Conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, his last official position before deciding to dedicate his life entirely to composition. He took British nationality in 1961. Even in England, life was not always easy for him. His compositions were independent from the current fashion. He remained true to his own aesthetic of constantly seeking new forms and a perfect balance between intellect and emotion, heart and mind.

However, in 1963 Panufnik won the coveted Monaco composition prize for his still most widely loved and admired work, Sinfonia Sacra. By the 1970’s Panufnik, though still shy of publicity, was very much part of British musical life and his music was performed by most of Britain’s leading orchestras, with performances at the BBC Proms and at many London Symphony Orchestra concerts.

Though, by 1977, Panufnik’s works were beginning to be performed at Warsaw Autumn Festival, he still refused to return to Poland while the Communists were still in power. In 1990, after the fall of Communism he made a momentous return to the city of his birth for the performance of eleven of his works at the Festival. He received a knighthood in 1991 and a posthumous Order of Polonia Restituta from Lech Wałęsa, President of Poland.

It is Panufnik’s Sinfonia di Sfere (1974-75) (Symphony of Spheres) (Symphony No.5) that opens this disc. In one movement, it is an abstract work with a structure influenced by the beauty and mystery of geometry. The Poco andante opens with woodwind, soon joined by the strings with brass soon appearing over a constantly shifting orchestral sound. As the music calms a little there is still a feeling of shifting harmonies. The music surges then falls again before a trombone appears with rhythmic percussion quietly moving along in the background. The music falls lower and lower with a piano joining the percussion until the Poco allegro arrives.

This brings a rhythmically scurrying orchestra with drums sounding in a light footed section with little darting phrases. The tempo returns to Poco andante as the piano leads in, with the orchestra soon following, in a heavy, slow moving theme low in the orchestra, only lightened by the higher piano notes. Deep brass enter whilst there is still the feeling of a distant movement from the piano and pizzicato strings that shift the music along. Higher strings enter, shifting around as a section with a terrific feeling of spaciousness, ever reaching distances, develops.

The music suddenly drops from the soaring strings into the Andante (più lento) section, a darker, more mysterious part, again pointed up by the piano. Lower strings continue to shift around and little woodwind motifs gently sound with percussion occasionally adding a sudden input. The orchestra slowly grows more intense before arriving at a fast moving section with a mixture of percussion, brass and piano that soon shifts to a rhythmically dancing theme for percussion, brass and piano. As the music continues to speed up, a trumpet joins in over the increasingly jazzy theme. Violins introduce a broad shifting theme that eventually slows before a gentle little woodwind theme that slowly moves forward interrupted twice by a drum outburst. There are timpani rolls, together with piano but it is the lower strings that eventually fade into the molto allegro where solo drums create a violent, dramatic passage before the violins return, quietly shifting around, with the strings becoming increasingly agitated.

Deep piano chords lead into the Molto andante section with the pianist’s right hand playing a rippling motif. A brass ensemble enters, mournfully, drums have a say before the strings play the theme, shared with the woodwind. Drums still, quietly, try to hold a faster pulse before the strings take over with little piano trills as the music slowly increases in passion, tempo and dynamics, Panufnik showing a masterly use of rhythm, textures, colours and dynamics. The music slowly quietens and slows to a string ensemble. The drums try to increase the tempo and dynamics but the music quietens to just a piano motif that leads into the final Molto allegro section full of energy with pulsating drums and agitated strings. There is a brief respite when the woodwind enter against the violent drums before a dramatic coda led by the drumming.

There is often an underlying instability, a restlessness of shifting themes and harmonies yet Panufnik’s symphonic thought is consistently apparent in this fine work. The Konzerthausorchestrer Berlin give an extremely fine performance under Łukasz Borowicz’s direction.

Drums feature in the opening of the Bassoon Concerto (1985), a Prologo, with a plodding rhythm where they and the percussion are soon joined by the bassoon in a marching theme. Dramatic lower strings add to the drama as the bassoon marches on before violins lighten the mood and lead into Recitative I with a long held high bassoon note, repeated, then varied in a plaintive theme before the woodwind quietly join in this meditative movement. This is a lovely movement with some very fine playing from bassoonist, Michael von Schönermark. Slowly the music rises to a more animated end leading into Recitative II where the bassoon alone adds staccato notes with sudden violin interruptions in this unusual section, finely played by this soloist

Aria brings a flowing theme from the bassoon with gentle woodwind accompaniment before the orchestra joins to lend a dark accompaniment to the bassoon’s beautiful theme, quiet haunting and very memorable. As Panufnik develops the theme there are strident strings and, later, a gloomy plod from the pizzicato strings that only adds to the dark melancholy of the music. Eventually dramatic staccato strings interrupt but the bassoon adds a less anxious feel, the orchestra now hushed against deep pizzicato strings. The bassoon re-enters to continue the theme but the dramatic strings re-enter. When a solo passage for bassoon arrives it is animated but, nevertheless melancholy, sounding like a heartfelt cry. The bassoon slowly quietens before strings join, quietly and with the bassoon, continue the sad, slow theme – a tragic, poignant moment of quiet heart rending beauty. There is a beautiful coda when woodwinds intermingle in the theme. Written in the final years of the Cold War and the murder of the Polish priest, Father Jerzy Popieluszko, there is, in Panufnik’s own words, an ‘echo’ of these events in this concerto

The brief Epilogo brings a sudden violence that, after the Aria, shakes the listener with staccato strings. Even when the bassoon enters it is with a short, sharp motif that does, nevertheless, begin to flow though quite rapidly before ending on lighter, more optimistic note. Again the Konzerthausorchestrer Berlin is first rate.

Love Song, a setting of words by 16th century writer, Sir Philip Sidney, did not appear in the arrangement for string orchestra played here, until just before the composer’s death in 1991. It has a lovely swaying melody for harp and strings to which mezzo-soprano, Sarah van der Kemp brings a nice timbre, adding fine feeling as the song rises emotionally, following the gentle sway of the orchestra in this lovely setting. The strings of the Konzerthausorchestrer are excellent.

Landscape (1962 rev. 1965) (for String Orchestra) opens with shimmering, hushed strings before the music firms up in this slow moving, atmospheric landscape of sound where harmonies constantly shift adding a rather misty, atmospheric feel. The music builds in intensity before a sudden drop that allows the music to end peacefully, fading to silence. Łukasz Borowicz conducts the Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra for this last work in an extremely atmospheric performance.

There is some exceptionally fine music on this new disc, an excellent addition to this series. The performances by the Konzerthausorchestrer Berlin and the Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Likasz Borowicz are first rate and there are excellent booklet notes. There is no text to Love Song which is sung in English.

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