Panufnik centenary concert, Barbican, London – review

This concert was the first in a programme of events marking the centenary of Andrzej Panufnik. Taking no chances in attracting an audience, the London Symphony Orchestra paired two Panufnik works with two crowd-pullers by Dvořák and threw in Anne-Sophie Mutter no less as soloist, though traffic delays caused by a city-wide London Underground train strike meant she only arrived for the second half.

Perhaps Panufnik’s time is only coming now, too. Born in Poland, living in exile in the UK from 1954, Panufnik wrote 10 symphonies and had his works performed by major artists, but he has always seemed a minor figure compared with the leading composers of his generation – Penderecki and Lutoslawski in Poland, Britten and Tippett in the UK.

Too simplistic was the usual verdict. The Sinfonia Sacra, probably his best-known work, is typically clear-headed and direct. Four solo trumpets at the corners of the stage announce the start with a volley of fanfares. A medieval Polish chant inspires music of hallowed simplicity, interrupted by a short, sharp movement of violent rhythmic energy, and then the final hymn builds to a glowing climax, crowned again by the four trumpets. In the mid-1960s it is easy to imagine how this seemed too obvious, too easy on the ear. But we have lived through the minimalists since then, including the Polish Górecki, and perhaps it is time to revisit Panufnik.

His Lullaby (1947, revised 1955) now seems a decade or two ahead of its time. The piece asks 29 solo string players to commune softly at different speeds, some of them with quarter-tones. The result is like an angel on some wheezy old accordion, softly breathing its ragged notes in and out – numinous Górecki blended with Ligeti-like clouds of sound, wistful and charming.

The Dvořák – his Symphony No.9 and Violin Concerto, in that order thanks to Mutter’s delayed arrival – could have felt quite hearty by comparison. But the conductor, Michael Francis, led a brisk, no-nonsense performance of the symphony and Mutter, as always, found marvels of expression in the concerto. Can the slow movement ever have been played with a tone so tender and withdrawn, as though revealing some long-lost romantic secret? Mutter remains a truly first-class draw.

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