Exploring Roxanna Panufnik

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CELESTIAL BIRD / PANUFNIK: Unending Love. Celestial Bird. Salve Regina. O Hearken. St. Pancras Magnificat & Nunc Dimittis. Since We Parted. A Cradle Song. Deus et Caritas. St. Aidan’s Prayer. Child of Heaven / Ex Cathedra; Milapfest; Jeffrey Skidmore, cond / Signum Classics SIGCD543

I suppose that Roxanna Panufnik (b. 1968) has a strong following overseas, but in my own personal classical world she is an entirely new name to me. A British composer of Polish background, she studied at the Royal College of Music and has written opera, ballet, choral and chamber works in addition to music for television and movies.

But before you assume that because of her association with pop media that Panufnik writes overly accessible and/or shallow works, you need to hear this album. The opening track, Unending Love, is based not on her Polish heritage but on Indian culture. There are Indian instruments, harmonies and chanting going on in these works, yet still poured into a classical structure. The music is hypnotic but not simple or sentimental. By contrast the album’s title track, Celestial Bird, is based on a mystical poem by American Jessica Powers, who became a Carmelite nun in Wisconsin, and has a certain amount of Celtic influence—but not enough to overcome the superb structure that Panufnik has created here. The music floats on a sea of gentle counterpoint and overlapping motifs, wending its way along. The Salve Regina was written as a tribute to Dame Raphael, a Benedictine nun, and its saving grace (no pun intended) is that it is not overly sanctimonious or devotional in feeling, but again well constructed and interesting.

O Hearken had an odd origin. In 2015, Panufnik offered her services to write a short piece for a raffle ticket winner at the annual Westminster Abbey Choir School’s summer celebration. She had promised to write a fanfare but the winner asked for a piece to be sung by the choir, so here it is. It’s short, quite pretty and, again, not sentimental. The St. Pancras Magnificat & Nunc Dimittus, written on commission for the London Festival of Contemporary Music, is a very contrapuntal piece in tonal harmony, albeit with interesting twists and turns. I rather liked the “Nunc dimittus,” with its slightly Eastern sound, a bit more than the “Magnificat.”

Since We Parted, written to commemorate the centenary of World War I, is admittedly a romantic piece, yet again with interesting harmonic twists (and rising chromatics), as well as interesting writing for the solo trumpet and cello. A Cradle Song, set to a poem by William Blake, is Panufnik’s “cradle song,” and here, too the romantic qualities are offset by her unusual sense of harmony. Deus et Caritas was written on commission from a man in tribute to his late parents. By contrast, St. Aidan’s Prayer is a more conventional piece, but the treble soloist is Panufnik’s son, Ben Macklow-Smith. With the finale, however (Child of Heaven), we hear Panufnik return to Indian harmonies with great effect.

A very interesting album, then, particularly for lovers of modern choral music, although Unending Love is the standout gem in this collection.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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