The Polish-born Panufnik (1914-1991) arrived in the UK during the fifties and made it his home. His cycle of ten symphonies is a valuable addition to the 20th century repertoire, and the third, the Sinfonia Sacra, which won the Prince Rainier prize, is one of the hidden treasures of the genre (although not completely unknown; there have been three other recordings and a Proms performance in 2003). This CD unites a reissue of the recording made as part of the prize with another two symphonies, his first, a spicy, earthy piece where the orchestra is split into antiphonal groups, and his fourth, more contemplative, with important solo parts for flute and harp. The Sinfonia Sacra is the cracker of the disc, however, from its arresting opening with fanfares for four trumpets spaced around the orchestra, through an ethereal static contemplation for strings, a demonic fast movement to its last movement, an unfolding of the earliest Polish national hymn which reaches its climax with a thrilling reprise of the four trumpets' first movement fanfares ringing out over everything else; a real spine-tingling moment. These recordings date from 1966 and 1975 and whilst great for their age, are not quite top drawer, hence the four stars; but the works themselves and their performances with composer as conductor are of particular value and well worth exploring, particularly at this price. A big thanks to EMI for this reissue.
A generously filled disc of some genuinely interesting 20th century symphonic works. Panufnik's sound world is intriguing: caustic brass writing and haunting in the Sacra, more jolly bucolic humour in Rustica (the Sinfonia Concertante is less immediately appealing though). If you are interested in exploring the lesser-known, however, you need have no hesitation here. It has the authoritative stamp of the composer at the helm, is well recorded and expertly played (particularly the Menuhin Festival Orchestra in Sinfonia Sacra).
Despite some nice orchestral touches (like the string glissandos in the slow movement), some of them resulting from the antiphonal placement of the strings (two quintets surrounded the woodwind and brass section, and the recording highlights them very well), the folk-inspired Sinfonia Rustica (1948, revised 1955) sounds not so much like one of those many works composed in imitation of Bartok in the late 1940s and early 1950s (and here it would be the most accessible, folk-inspired Bartok of the Hungarian Dances), as one written in imitation of Kodaly, strikingly so. Not that it is a bad specimen in that not so frequent genre, but still, it sounds very derivative.
But Sinfonia Concertante for flute, harp and strings, wich dates from 1973, is something else. It is terse, enigmatic, gentle, meditative, its textures are chamber-like, starting with a beautifully mysterious duet of the two solo instruments. It displays genuine imagination and, in its apparently unassuming character, it is highly original and quite daring.
Sinfonia Sacra and Sinfonia Rustica were originally recorded by EMI in 1966 and published together (HMV ASD 2298), and later licensed by Unicorn. This is why the same recordings can be found, but separately, on two Unicorn CD reissues, completed with shorter Panufnik pieces : Tragic Overture / Autumn Music / Heroic Overture and Panufnik - Sinfonia Sacra / Concerto Festivo / Concertino / Landscape. I prefer to have them back together, even if it entails the loss of the shorter pieces which complete the Unicorn CDs. As expected, in Sinfonia Sacra the Monte Carlo Orchestra sounds more rough and untidy than the Concertgebouw, and the composer's later recording on Elektra/Nonesuch remains a better choice, all the more so as it contains the magnificent "Arbor Cosmica" for 12 strings (1983), one of Panufnik's masterpieces and arguably one of the great masterpieces of 20th Century music for string ensemble. But for Sinfonia Concertante alone this new reissue is worth buying, and the duplication of Sinfonia Sacra no big obstacle. Sinfonia Concertante was recorded in 1975 and first released on LP as EMI EMD 552, paired with the composer's Violin Concerto performed by Menuhin (earlier reissued on another EMI "British Composers" disc, paired with Concertos of Berkeley and Williamson, but now sadly difficult to find, Berkeley/Williamson/Panufnik - Violin Concertos ).
Liner notes are pretty scanty. The dates of composition aren't even given, I had to go on Panufnik's website to retrieve them.
These performances have the benefit of performance with the composer himself conducting. Sinfonia Rustica (no 1) and Sinfonia Sacra (no 3) were recorded in the mid 1960s and the sound quality is showing its age. Even so the performances are spirited. These early symphonies express more overt Polish nationalism than his later works but show his skills in the tight organisation of material. Rustica uses folk like material throughout but this is harmonically stretched - possibly as far as he could go under the Polish communist regime.
Sinfonia Sacra is a stirring piece and his most famous - celebrating Polish nationhood and Catholic faith. There are better recordings both for standard of playing and recording but this one has more urgency and spirit than the more calculated later readings.
Sinfonia Concertante (Symphony no 4) shows a development in his style towards a more expansive tonality but this is very refined, balanced and ordered music. The combination of solo instruments is exquisitely coloured. Recorded later, the sound quality is much improved.
Although there are reservations about the sound quality in the earlier pieces this stands as an excellent survey of his earlier symphonies so comes warmly recommended.