CBSO Pays Centenary Tribute to Former Conductor Sir Andrzej

Andrzej Panufnik Centenary Concert – Panufnik, Stravinsky, Beethoven, Wagner:  Peter Donohoe (piano), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Michael Seal (conductor), Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 24.9.2014.


Stravinsky: Greeting Prelude
Beethoven: Leonore Overture No. 3
Panufnik: Piano Concerto
Wagner: Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan and Isolde
Panufnik: Symphony No. 2 (Sinfonia Elegiaca)


Michael Seal is one of the CBSO’s best-kept secrets. For long a pillar of the Birmingham orchestra’s string section, and a solo player in his own right, he is now the CBSO’s Associate (formerly Assistant) Conductor. Skilled across the full range of repertoire, Seal honed his knowledge of Romantic and, indeed, Twentieth Century music from his long leadership of the Midland, later CBSO Youth, orchestra from which he drew uniquely assured and impressive results. By his utter reliability, popular with and trusted by the players, a mature baton technique and frequent touches of real inspiration, Seal has acquired with the senior players a standing and respect akin to that which his CBSO colleague, Edward Gardner, achieved with the Hallé  under Mark Elder’s tutelage.

What a wise choice Seal proved, then, for their equally inspiredly-programmed celebration of the CBSO’s former (1957-9) Chief Conductor, the Polish-born avant-garde composer Sir Andrzej Panufnik, who risked all in escaping from a secure position in his recently-turned- Communist homeland so as to preserve his freedom to compose as he wanted. True, his slightly elder contemporary Lutoslawski proved that it was possible to benefit from Poland’s relative artistic ease (like Hungary’s) in the post-Stalin Eastern bloc; but Panufnik gained his own following, albeit modest, in the West, conducted orchestras worldwide, was knighted for services to music, and was known for the integrity of his work in both fields.

……And profundity. For if this memorable concert, which included a massive tranche of Wagner’s Tristan and for some the most satisfying of Beethoven’s overtures to Fidelio, the almost symphonic Leonore no. 3, both in handsome performances from all the orchestral sections (duly congratulated at the end) under Seal’s sensibly judged leadership, stirred the depths of emotion – that of the love-lorn Leonora and love-torn Isolde – it was in Panufnik’s second symphony (the second of ten), the Sinfonia Elegiaca (Panufnik, a year younger than Britten, liked such titles: Sacra, Rustica, Mystica, Votiva), a profound lament for war and its victims of all kind (the composer lived through the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto, and the fatal 1944 uprising encouraged by Russia and crushed by the Nazis, but he widens his vision to a worldwide conspectus of suffering), with its a slow-fast-slow (ie double-andante, almost double-adagio layout) that from its almost Vaughan Williams-like, nervously serene opening generates a grieving one might look for in, say, Shostakovich 7, Tchaikovsky 6 or the aching tragedy of Karl Amadeus Hartmann’s 1939 Concerto Funèbre.

Panufnik’s determination to work with tiny cells – major-minor thirds, or elsewhere seconds – reflects a Beethovenian precision and a Haydnesque incisiveness. It worked better here, in this elegy, than in his Piano Concerto, despite Peter Donohoe’s valiant efforts, looking a bit like a peak-scaling John Ogdon, to make multiple decoration work. Such toccata-like writing put one in mind of Malcolm Williamson’s similar propensity in Hyperion’s magnificent new recording of all Williamson’s piano concerti, CDA 68011/2. But it did not impact in the way this magnificent and moving symphony, punctuated by massive CBSO brass ostinati did, an opening cor anglais elegy, and strange feelings from string harmonics at both the start and chiasmic close that sounded almost bewilderingly like that rarely-used French instrument, the theremin, which generates such eerie terror in the film noir scores of Miklós Rózsa. If one had to compare Panufnik’s strange brand of modalism to another, it might just be to near-neighbour Kodály at his height.

Lest we lacked scherzi, Stravinsky’s Greeting Prelude – a swirling, mischievous adaptation of Happy Birthday to You written for Pierre Monteux and performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Charles Munch – a real trio of greats – said it all. But while Seal’s treatment of Leonore 3 worked wonders in many respects – its intensity, its nobility, and the extraordinary pianissimo passages and unison woodland melody that are interspersed between the awesome trumpet calls whjch announce that Florestan and the others are free and Pizarro defeated, and the extraordinary, brilliantly scored offbeat bassoons which accompany its second manifestation – I never quite felt fully at ease with the pacings. It’s a work that looks far ahead – to Mendelssohn, Dvořák, Bruch –  it was Seal’s handling of Wagner’s Prelude and Liebestod that yielded for the CBSO a gobsmackingly good performance, quite brisk at times, with a marvellous sense of long line, built with acumen and polished to the letter. It was not just a routine Symphony Hall performance, but one that would have sat equally well in a BBC Prom or in the Vienna Musikverein or the Philharmonie in Berlin.

The CBSO and its section leaders could be massively proud of this showing. It shows that after Rattle, after Oramo and after Nelsons, there will indeed be life ahead for the Midlands’ showpiece ensemble.

Roderic Dunnett

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