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Sir Andrzej PANUFNIK (1914-1991) and Roxanna PANUFNIK (b. 1968)
Modlitwa (1990/1999, rev. 2007) [6:36]*
Sir Andrzej PANUFNIK
String Quartet No. 1 To My Wife (1976, rev. 1977) [17:42]
String Quartet No. 2 Messages (1980) [19:25]
String Quartet No. 3 Wycinanki (1990) [10:57]
Song to the Virgin Mary (1964/69, arr. 1987) [11:10]*
Memories of my Father (2013) [11:34]
Brodsky Quartet
Robert Smissey (viola)*
Richard May (cello)*
rec. The Music Room, Champs Hill, West Sussex; 9-11 December 2013
Reviewed as 16-bit lossless FLAC download
CHANDOS CHAN10839 [78:24]

There are numerous examples of father-son composer duos, but I can’t think of another example of father and daughter, apart for Gustav and Imogen Holst. Both Panufniks have seen their music well served in recent years, notably the series of eight discs of the orchestral works of Andrzej from CPO and the well-received choral works of Roxanna. This is not the first recording to pair their works: earlier this year – the centenary of Andrzej’s birth – saw a recording of works for solo piano from BIS (see review).

Appropriately enough, the disc begins with a work that is a joint effort, though one done separately, as Roxanna’s contribution came after her father’s death. Modlitwa means “prayer” – I only read this after listening to the piece, when the word “lament” had come to mind. The original work by Andrzej in two parts – the first recited, the second sung, with piano accompaniment – sets the words of a Polish poet, Jerzy Pietrkiewicz, a close friend of the composer. After Andrzej’s death, Roxanna was asked by Pietrkiewicz to provide a sung setting for the first part. She has also made arrangements for string quartet, string orchestra, and for this recording, string sextet. Her contribution is placed between her father’s, and its presence is quite obvious in its different style, though this is not to say that it doesn’t fit.

Andrzej chose not to write a string quartet until his mid-sixties, believing that it was only then that he was ready for the challenge – shades of Brahms and the symphony. The first quartet is based around a single triad, and begins with a sequence of ghostly fragments in the Prelude, with each instrument taking turns to explore the three notes. The second movement Transformations occupies more than two-thirds of the whole work, and the solo playing gives way to various groupings of the four instruments. The fragmentary nature of the first movement remains, but is interspersed with unison sections of great beauty. The final Postlude begins without a pause, and features the most energised music. I wasn’t especially enamoured with the work, but I recognise that it is a product of its time, and I suspect its intricate nature might reveal more secrets on repeated listenings.

The title of the second quartet refers to a favourite pastime as a child on holiday in the Polish countryside: putting his ear against a wooden telegraph pole to listen to the eerie, semi-musical sounds of the wires vibrating in the wind. In sixth section, played continuously, the work uses just two ideas – a triad and a tetrad – in multiple permutations. The composer described it as being a secret code: “a message made up of squares and triangles, rather than words”. I enjoyed this much more than the first quartet, with the third section (Vivo scherzando) beginning and ending in playful pizzicato with a dramatic bowed middle.

His final quartet, written in the last sixth months of his life, reflects the highs – a knighthood and a return to his homeland – and the low of impending death. It was written for the London International String Quartet Competition, and is very much a test of a quartet’s ability. The first section – it, too, is played without a pause – is essentially an exercise in bow control, almost continuous playing at relatively low volume with minimal melody or rhythm. The fourth section (Prestissimo possibile) means as fast as possible. At least there are no instructions to then play even faster, as there is in the Schumann G minor piano sonata! Roxanna Panufnik, who wrote the excellent and very personal booklet notes, describes the final section as “some of the most powerfully and intensely moving music that my father wrote”. This is a very episodic piece by nature of the reasons for its composition: suffice to say that each very different episode is beautifully crafted, and equally impressive in their own way. The title refers to a Polish art form of paper cutting.

The final work on the disc, Song to the Virgin Mary, was originally an a cappella choral work, and is, by quite some margin, the most approachable of the four works by Panufnik senior. It has its origins in Polish folk music and plainchant. While it may not have the complexity of the three quartets, it does have a much greater immediate appeal, and will go on to my oft-played list.

For reasons that are not really explained in the notes, the two movements of Roxanna’s Memories of my Father are programmed separately, before and after her father’s Quartets 2 and 3. The work was a commission by its performers here. I have to admit to playing the two movements in their natural sequence, rather than the disc order. The first movement includes an arrangement of a Gesualdo motet melody, played without vibrato. The second movement is very, very different, making their separation on the disc easier, and is influenced by the bouzouki music that the composer remembers from childhood holidays in Greece. These playful pizzicato elements are interspersed with more dissonant passages.

The Brodsky Quartet’s dedication to contemporary classical music is well known; their playing and that of the two extra players in the sextets is faultless. The sound quality is similarly excellent.

Those following the CPO orchestral series will undoubtedly want this urgently. For those like me just beginning their Panufnik journey, it is hard going in places, but the quality of the writing is undeniable.

David Barker