Poland's Panufnik -- composer with a 'new language'
New York — The name Andrzej Panufnik may not strike a peal of recognition for concertgoers in the United States.
In the late '60s, Leopold Stokowski championed this Polish composer's then-new pieces, particularly the ''Universal Prayer,'' which not only had its world premiere in New York under Maestro Stokowski, but was recorded as well.
It is possible that after the world premiere of Panufnik's latest work, ''Sinfonia Votiva,'' he will gain the recognition in the US he already has overseas. This new work will be ''unveiled'' today, Friday, and Saturday by the Boston Symphony in its hometown as one of 12 works commissioned by that orchestra to celebrate its 100th year of existence. It will also be recorded for commercial release on Hyperion Records.
Panufnik's story is particularly dramatic. As one of Poland's most promising young composers, he was on the verge of great things when World War II broke out. In the course of the ensuing havoc, the composer's entire output was destroyed in the Warsaw uprising of 1944. He was able to recall and thus re-create a few works, but Panufnik virtually had to begin over again.
By then, however, social realism had become entrenched in Poland, and the composer was artistically and philosophically unable to comply with these stultifying rules of this state-dictated style. His creativity slackened and his only outlet was as music director of several orchestras in Poland (Panufnik studied conducting in Vienna under the celebrated classicist Felix Weingartner).
Finally, in 1954, Panufnik left Poland in protest over the oppressive artistic climate, and has yet to return. Then in a slight liberalization of policy his music was finally heard again in Poland at the prestigious Warsaw Festival of 1977.
Since his voluntary exile to England, his renown as a composer has grown by leaps and bounds (after a necessary interim as a conductor to produce an income). ''I left everything behind,'' he says. ''I had to start a new life and accept engagements as a conductor.'' Now he can devote his entire time to composing. ''Sinfonia Votiva'' will be his eighth work in that form, and he lists several concertos (including one for violin commissioned by Yehudi Menuhin), overtures, short pieces, string quartets, etc. His music is at once highly organized and accessible. Panufnik communicates in his music passions, tensions, exultations -- a complete spectrum.
''Over the years,'' the composer explains, ''I have developed a new language, marked by an economy of expression. Limitation inspires me. Economy of expression I find is best.
''Construction and order I find essential,'' he continues in his charmingly accented English, ''together with musical content. My aim is to achieve a balance between motion and intellect -- heart and brain.''
To look at a Panufnik diagram of the ''plan'' of a ''Sinfonia,'' say, is to see a highly organized, totally symmetrical, even downright pretty, pattern. My crash listening spree this past weekend included several of his symphonies and other works -- ''Sinfonia Sacra,'' ''Sinfonia Rustica,'' ''Sinfonia di Sphere,'' ''Sinfonia Mystica,'' ''Concertino,'' ''Landscape,'' ''Concerto Festivo,'' ''Katyn Epitaph,'' and a record of his earlier works including the ''Tragic Overture.'' Revealed was a composer with a good deal to say, one who spoke in broad, imaginative sweeps and in haunting, restrained asides. The music is bleak at one moment, jubilant at another, always engaging, drawing the listener down its cleanly charted path.
As he notes in his words on ''Sinfonia Votiva'' for the Boston Symphony program book, ''The structure of this work should, for the listener, remain an unseen skeleton holding in unity the musical material, and I hope the emotional and spiritual elements will totally dominate.'' In his earlier pieces, he has achieved his aim.
How did this particular commission come about? ''By a phone call!'' It also happened that at the time he began writing the work, the shipworkers in Gdansk began their strikes. For obvious reasons, Poland has had a tremendous effect on Panufnik's music. Perhaps the tragic overtones are the result of his separation from his homeland. More specifically, he no longer incorporates the Polish tunes and rhythms that animated his earlier music. Panufnik works, in his own words, on a more abstract level. Still the drama unfolding daily in his homeland could not help but dramatically influence him, and he calls this work emotionally supercharged.
After his quick stay in the States, he and his wife, the photographer-author Camilla Jessel, returned to Twickenham (near London, his home since 1954), where he is continuing work on a Koussevitsky Foundation commission piece. Though his favorite medium is large or chamber orchestra, he has already written his second string quartet. He is now even in the process of contemplating the possibility -- he is hesitant about the limitations a plot would put on his muse -- of writing either an opera or a ballet.