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Dip Your Ears, No. 114 (Panufnik's Sinfonia Mistica)

available at AmazonA.Panufnik , Sinf.Mistica et al.,
L.Borowicz / Polish RSO

In 1954 the forty year old composer and conductor Andrzej Panufnik escaped the constraints of Socialist Realism when he left his native Poland—that event itself a spectacular Cold-War escape story—via Switzerland for England. There he managed—nearly as impressive and courageous—to escape the musical constraints of the Western avant-garde. The price was freedom but relative obscurity, dotted only by occasional successes and important artists—Stokowski and Rostropovich among them—championing his cause. In 1991, the year he died, Panufnik was made a Knight Bachelor, but his music is only now beginning to receive regular attention on CD.

Partaking in that effort are Naxos and Ondine which have released recordings dedicated to just his music. And, most importantly and thoroughly, the cpo label which is now on volume three of its series of the symphonic works of Andrzej Panufnik. Volumes one and two have been reviewed (all positively) by Robert Markow and Phillip Scott in 34:2 and 34:3, respectively, and (both) by Walter Simmons in 34:3. Markow remarked on the “tough and uncompromising [element of] Panufnik’s music”, which reminded him “of Ives or Ruggles”, while Simmons, who has written about Punufnik at length, hears in him “one of the most unusual and distinctive European composers of his generation.” That’s saying quite a bit, seeing how Panufnik is an exact contemporary of Henri Dutilleux and Witold Lutosławski, and also Mieczysław Weinberg and Dmitri Shostakovich.

Central to Panufnik are a slow, deliberate development of his music as he squeezes harmonies out of one gently twisted chord after another. His is a spare and evocative modern mysticism that uses modern-ish means to express traditional sentiments, often at the very extremes of dynamic levels and along the lines of what composers from half a generation after him—Silvestrov, Penderecki or Gubaidulina—became known for. You can gather so much just from the titles he gave to his (altogether ten) Symphonies: “Mistica” in the case of the 1977 Sixth Symphony on the present recording… or “Symphony of Spheres”, “Sinfonia elegiaca”, and “Sinfonia Sacra” for its predecessors. “Mistica” explores, according to Panufnik, the mysteries of the number six (six identical circles exactly encircle a seventh circle of the same size), and the numerology is built-in in every imaginable obvious and hidden way. Geometry and symmetry haunt almost all of his works, but Panufnik suggests the listeners not concern themselves with the extra-musical content. And since the symphony (thankfully) allows enjoyable focus on just the music, we shall.

Most exciting to these ears is the way the last—sixth (of course)—movement of the symphony,where the long, intensely soaring, expansive string figures drive the symphony to a calm-yet-frenetic finale over increasingly excited, propulsive, rhythmically taut woodwind chatter. The way the repeated pulse changes every so often, one is reminded—if faintly—of the way Philip Glass modulates his rhythmic patterns. The large dynamic blocks that Panufnik uses could in turn suggest Bruckner to the inclined listener.

“Autumn Music” and “Hommage à Chopin” amble about amiably… the latter (in its 1966 orchestrated version) as a serene, melodious, occasionally vivacious concerto for flute (terrific sound, technique, and performance: Łukasz Długosz) in five short movements.

The flute is nearly as prominent in the 1956, three-part “Rhapsody for Orchestra”, an orchestra-showcase piece à la ‘concerto for orchestra’, with solo-moments for everyone, from tuba to piccolo. Panufnik is often most effective in his extended slow movements, but the Vivace here has all the drive and catchiness of a good film tune; without wishing to denigrate in the least, I had to think of a “Lassie” chase/rescue scene more than once.

The Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra has been a top-notch orchestra for quite some time, as many releases on Naxos, cpo, Chandos, or EMI readily attest. While it would be silly suggest that a (indeed any) performance cannot be bettered, Łukasz Borowicz, his band, and its individual highlighted members, turn in something terrific that never beckoned comparison with the few older recordings (David Atherton/LSO from 1978 on Decca Head/Explore with the “Mistica”, for example).

Lastly: A different than the hitherto usual translator has had a go at cpo’s liner notes and the result is a dramatic improvement in readability, albeit at the expense of the unintentionally comic element that had been their calling card.

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