Andrzej Panufnik (1914-1991) sketched-out his Sinfonia sacra
in 1961 and completed it in 1963. Composed in England and Spain, Panufnik
stated that his symphony was an expression of his: "religious and patriotic
feelings...I wanted this composition to be very much Polish in character
and also to emphasise the Catholic tradition so deeply rooted in the
country of my birth." This symphony far exceeds the composer’s stated
intentions, having a universality which transcends narrow religious
and national boundaries.
The thirty minute symphony is in two parts, Vision and Hymn. Vision
1 - Maestoso -opened with a haunting fanfare of four trumpets which
recalled Janacek‚s Sinfonietta. The very well-rehearsed Royal
Liverpool Philharmonic trumpeters played standing and spaced far apart,
resulting in a poignancy which transfixed the audience.
By contrast Vision 2 - Larghetto - is scored for strings only. The RLPO
strings played with precision and nervous tension, resulting in a razor
sharp sound evoking both anxiety and melancholia. Vision 3 - Allegro
assai - opens with drums and percussion and the RLPO percussionists
had a field day, filling the hall with martial sounds, until the din
of war is suddenly silenced by the soft strings of the Hymn - Andante
sostenuto. The orchestral textures and colours of Hymn are richer and
warmer than the Visions of part one, but the mood remains forlorn until
the entry of the full brass which lifts the music into a more optimistic
mood, culminating in a jubilant celebration, reprising the martial fanfares
of Vision 1. Gerard Schwarz conducted the score with total commitment
and profound sensitivity, producing miraculous sounds from this first
rate orchestra. Sinfonia sacra is a work of inspired genius and
Panufnik is an underrated and still much neglected composer. The audience
received the symphony warmly and were clearly moved by this rarely performed
From the sacred to the sensual, Schwarz turned to Wagner’s Prelude and
Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde. The Prelude was well played
and well paced with some exquisitely phrased and pointed woodwind playing.
However, Jane Eaglen, in a performance which was received politely rather
than enthusiastically, was a cold and colourless Isolde, totally lacking
in sensuality; she left me totally unmoved. There was none of the lightness
of touch and lyricism that Rita Gorr and Regine Crespin brought to the
This was the first Prom performance of Richard Strauss’s
rarely played Symphonic Fantasia from his opera Die Frau ohne Schatten.
Later in his life when Strauss was living in post-war exile in Switzerland,
he produced this twenty-minute Reader’s Digest concert version to counter
the opera’s flagging popularity. However, today, the opera is given
more frequently than the orchestral highlights version. Again, the RLPO
played with great gusto, especially the trombones and horns.
The evening ended with Siegfried’s Death and the Immolation Scene from
Götterdämmerung. Schwarz conducted Siegfried’s Death music
far too fast, resulting in a lack of tension and a loss of drama; the
percussion and timpani lacked bite. Eaglen was in better form for the
Immolation Scene, her singing was controlled and incisive, slicing through
Wagner’s dense orchestral textures. However, this big voice is largely
hollow, lacking in weight, colour and style. It is also curiously unbeautiful,
lacking the finesse of a Kirsten Flagstad. Normally the singer in Wagner
has to fight to be heard above the orchestra; in the case of Ms. Eaglen
it was quite the reverse and one’s sympathies were with the orchestra.
Although Eaglen’s performance apparently overwhelmed both the audience
and orchestra, rousing them to rapturous applause, I found myself scarcely
whelmed at all. It was the wonderful Scouse RLPO which was the real
voice of the evening.