This commemoration of Andrzej Panufnik’s centenary was doubly justified, in that not only has the composer’s stature never been clearer but also his tenure as Chief Conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (1957-59) was a vital stage in its re-emergence as an ensemble of the front rank. Interestingly, all five works heard at this concert were scheduled by Panufnik at his CBSO concerts – not least the Greeting Prelude (1955) Stravinsky wrote to mark Pierre Monteux’s 80th-birthday and whose engaging astringency was no less apposite on this occasion.
It would be interesting to know the context in which Panufnik included Beethoven’s Third Leonore Overture (1806), as its eventful unfolding within a steadfast tonal trajectory yields parallels with the former composer’s orchestral music. Michael Seal was slightly impassive in the introduction (any bemusement on the audience’s part probably due to the movement headings for the Second Symphony being given in the programme note!), but thereafter he steered a secure and often impulsive course through to the work’s exhilarating conclusion.
Panufnik’s Piano Concerto was an obvious inclusion in that 1962 premiere was given by the CBSO and the composer with Kendall Taylor an apparently fearless soloist. It also had an unusually protracted genesis, having been sketched in 1957 then revised twice before what is now its first movement was added in 1982. Peter Donohoe had the measure of the explosive energy of this ‘Entrata’, soloist and orchestra engaged in a confrontation abruptly silenced by the rarefied opening of the central Molto tranquillo. Here the interplay has an almost prayerful response from woodwinds and strings, the soloist only gradually integrating itself within the ruminative discourse whose melodic expansion is allied to a limpid pianism that was amply conveyed. Nor was Donohoe fazed by the uncoiled aggression of the Molto agitato finale, which fuses elements from its predecessors (powered by some visceral work from the percussion) as well as building to a bracing apotheosis via an accompanied cadenza such as ranks with the composer’s most thrilling passages. A timely revival of an impressive work.
Following the interval, the ‘Prelude and Liebestod’ from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde (1859) further opened out the concert’s expressive remit – Seal keeping the former’s distanced ambiguity in focus on the way to a fervent culmination and fatalistic close, while ensuring that the ‘Liebestod’ brought the requisite transcendence during its radiant closing pages. Not music one might readily associate with Panufnik, yet it was an overt presence in that of Szymanowski – in turn an early (and an obliquely enduring) influence on his Polish successor.
Transcendence of a different kind is evinced in Sinfonia elegiaca – the second of Panufnik’s ten Symphonies, completed in 1957 on the basis of material from his discarded Symphony of Peace of six years earlier. Shorn of its propagandist choral component, the piece stands as a finely achieved statement at a time of personal and political turmoil – whose three continuous movements move from a Molto andante that alternates between pensive woodwind chorale and ravishing string cantilena, via a Molto allegro whose barbarity is (just) held in check by its formal subtlety, to another Molto andante such as utilises earlier ideas along with a new string threnody before it ethereally recollects the work’s opening. A committed response from the CBSO was ably controlled by Seal to the evident appreciation of the audience.
An appreciation, moreover, which amply refuted an old adage that quiet symphonic endings often fail to gain a positive response, besides reminding that Panufnik’s orchestral output is too significant not to retain its claim on the repertoire after this centenary year has passed.