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Roxanna PANUFNIK (b. 1968)
Celestial Bird
Unending Love [9:14]
Celestial Bird (2013) [5:42]
Salve Regina [3:41]
O Hearken (2015) [2:08[
St Pancras Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis (2014) [10:09]
Since We Parted (2015) [10:05]
A Cradle Song (2017) [4:41]
Deus Est Caritas (2017) [3:52]
St Aidan's Prayer (2016) [3:45]
Child of Heaven (2018) [3:13]
Ex Cathedra / Jeffrey Skidmore
rec. 2018, Bramall Music Building, University of Birmingham, UK
Texts included

Can it really be the case that Roxanna Panufnik turns 50 in 2018? Well, it is true and this new album from Birmingham-based Ex Cathedra celebrates that anniversary. In fact, 2018 is turning into quite a momentous year for Miss Panufnik. Her Songs of Darkness, Dream of Light was commissioned for the Last Night of the Proms and duly received its world premiere on that occasion. As my colleague, Alan Sanders pointed out in his review, the piece marked the centenary of the ending of the First World War. As we shall see, this new work had things in common with one of the pieces here recorded by Ex Cathedra. In a few weeks’ time on 21 November, her major new score, Faithful Journey - A Mass for Poland will receive its UK premiere in Birmingham from the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and its choruses. Faithful Journey has been co-commissioned by the CBSO and the National Radio Symphony of Poland.

It’s appropriate that the present disc should mark Miss Panufnik’s birthday because, as Jessica Duchen points out in her useful notes, some 70% of her compositions are choral works. Indeed, my own experience of her music has largely been in that genre and I’ve come to admire very much her facility for writing for groups of singers, not least her imaginative textures and her feeling for words..

The programme is book-ended by two pieces that reflect her great interest in World Music. Unending Love was commissioned by the National Youth Choir who wanted a setting of words by Rabindranath Tagore. The result is a fusion between Western and Indian music and for this piece Ex Cathedra are joined by members of Milapfest, an English-based organisation that exists to promote Indian arts. Here, a group of musicians playing traditional Indian instruments and a Carnatic singer join the choir. I’m sorry to say that the piece doesn’t work for me. Partly that’s a matter of personal taste, since I’ve never been attracted to the sound of traditional Indian music, especially the style of singing. However, even setting aside the question of taste, it seems to me that the fusion is rather unbalanced: the Indian musical element is over-prominent. Child of Heaven, which concludes the programme, is much more successful, I think. This is a setting of words from the Rig Veda in English translation and it’s for unaccompanied choir. Here, Panufnik uses Indian modes in her music. There’s a good deal of overlapping choral writing in the background as the text is declaimed by other singers. Impelled forward by these energetic overlapping lines, the piece builds excitingly to an ecstatic final chord. Child of Heaven was commissioned by Ex Cathedra.

So was Since We Parted, the first performance of which I reviewed for Seen and Heard in 2015. On that occasion, though I admired the piece, I felt it was somewhat overshadowed by the much larger piece, Seven Angels by James MacMillan which was also premiered in that concert. Now I’ve welcomed the chance to become better acquainted with Since We Parted in its own right. This is the piece which seems to me to link in with the 2018 Proms commission Songs of Darkness, Dream of Light which I mentioned earlier. One way in which the two are linked is the anniversary of the First World War. Since We Parted was written as the UK began its four-year-long commemoration of the Great War, whereas Songs of Darkness, Dream of Light comes at the end of that period of reflection. In both cases Roxanna Panufnik has chosen to set words by two different poets to make linked and contrasting points. In the more recent work she selected lines by Isaac Rosenberg and words from Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet. In Since We Parted there are lines by the Victorian Robert Bulmer-Lytton (1831-1891) and some by Kathleen Coates (1891-1958) from her poem, ‘A Year and a Day’. The words by Bulmer-Lytton are used as a kind of refrain, set to warmly romantic music. Kathleen Coates’ sentiments are even more regretful and though the tempo is not quicker (I think) the music to which her words are set seems more urgent, conveying the sorrow of parting. The choir is accompanied by a small ensemble consisting of two trumpets, harp, piano and cello. The instruments are tellingly used and in particular the frequent little fanfare-like fragments on the trumpets seem to suggest in the background a military context which is not actually present in either poet’s words. This is a most imaginative and eloquent score.

I can’t resist mentioning the background to how another of these pieces came into being. How many works do you know that began life as a raffle prize? For the Westminster Abbey Choir School summer fête in 2015 Roxanna Panufnik donated, as a raffle prize, the offer to write a short piece of music. What she had in mind was a fanfare but she was persuaded by the winner to write instead a short piece for the Westminster Abbey Choir. The result was O Hearken. It’s a brief but very effective piece for unaccompanied choir and, dare I say, I bet it’s more likely to be frequently performed than a fanfare might have been.

Miss Panufnik’s connection with Westminster Abbey Choir School is that her son, Benedict Macklow-Smith is a treble in the Abbey choir. Benedict makes a guest appearance on this disc to sing the treble solo in St Aidan's Prayer. This lovely little piece for choir and organ was written as an 80th birthday present for the composer’s godfather, the Polish artist, Andrzej Dzierzyński. The text is first sung in English by the choir and then is sung again, this time in Italian, by the treble soloist with support from the choir. The solo line sounds pretty demanding and Benedict Macklow-Smith acquits himself really well, singing with clarity and confidence.

I’ve heard the St Pancras Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis before. The Latin texts are used and the music, in six parts, is sung by an a cappella choir. On this occasion the performance is by a consort of just ten voices and that means that the often-complex part writing is heard with great clarity. These are fine settings of the Canticles in which the most memorable writing of all is an upward choral flourish, rather in the manner of a fanfare, which opens the Magnificat and which also features in the doxology of both Canticles. The other pieces were new to me and I enjoyed them all, including the often-fragile writing in Celestial Bird and the warmly lyrical harmonies of the carol-lullaby, A Cradle Song, which sets words by William Blake.

This album is a fine and nicely varied birthday gift from Ex Cathedra to Roxanna Panufnik. Under the leadership of Jeffrey Skidmore this ensemble has acquired a justly-deserved reputation as one of the UK’s finest chamber choirs. This disc will surely enhance its reputation still further. It also serves to remind us that though they made their name for their historically informed performances of Baroque music, much of it rare, they have consistently been highly effective advocates for the choral music of our own time.

The technical aspects of the project were in the highly experienced hands of Adrian Peacock (producer) and Mike Hatch (engineer). They’ve achieved very successful results here, recording the choir very pleasingly and integrating the instrumental contributions convincingly. The documentation is comprehensive.

John Quinn



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