Andrzej Panufnik acknowledges applause following the world premiere of his Symphony no. 10 in February 1990

Andrzej Panufnik acknowledges applause following the world premiere of his Symphony no. 10 in February 1990

This year we celebrate the centennial of composer and conductor Sir Andrzej Panufnik, one of Poland’s leading musicians of the twentieth century.

In February 1990, Panufnik debuted as guest conductor with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, leading two of his works: his Concerto for Violin and Strings (with co-concertmaster Samuel Magad as soloist) and the world premiere of his Tenth Symphony, commissioned for the CSO’s centennial. On the second half of the program, Sir Georg Solti led Beethoven’s Second Symphony.

In the composer’s own words: “The commission was at once a great honor and a tremendous challenge. My first thought was to write a show-piece with virtuoso pyrotechnics to take fullest advantage of the celebrated technical possibilities of the Orchestra. However, I eventually decided that the best homage to these brilliant players would be a symphony, which, through various combinations of groups and instruments, would demonstrate their supreme sound quality, show off their collective musicianship and humanity, and their ability to convey their intense and profound feeling. . . .

“The symphony is written in one continuous movement consisting of fourteen sections. The first two have the character of an invocation. The following sections, meditative in character, build up gradually to a climax, which is suddenly cut short, leaving the vibration of the piano-strings from which emerges the prayer-like music of the last two sections.” The program page and notes are here.

In the Chicago Sun-Times, Robert Marsh wrote: “The Symphony no. 10 produces mixed impressions and would be best evaluated in a second, and more subtle, performance. This one appeared to be quite episodic, but parts of the score are quite striking, and the quiet close is very beautiful. Panufnik is deeply influenced by Stravinsky, whose spirit haunts the score, but it is Stravinsky rethought by a keen and adventurous mind” (the complete review is here).

And in the Chicago Tribune, John von Rhein surmised that since the work bore no descriptive title, the composer “apparently wishes the listener to consider it as absolute music. Yet hearing the final section—its quietly flowing strings and harp evoking a vast stillness after the jagged rhythmic exertions of the middle pages—one cannot help but think of the recent relaxation of official controls on creative artists in Poland that is allowing Panufnik to return to his homeland for the first time since his departure in 1954. The music seems to carry a fervent (if implicit) message of reconciliation . . .” (the complete review is here).

In September 1990, Panufnik did indeed return to Poland for the first time in thirty-six years, and he conducted the European premiere of his Tenth Symphony. He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in early 1991.

This week, Principal Trumpet Christopher Martin is soloist in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s first performances of Panufnik’s Concerto in modo antico. Riccardo Muti conducts.

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