Andrzej Panufnik, Sinfonia di Sfere

By Peter Laki

Written for the concert Spacial Explorations, performed on June 1, 2008 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Andrzej Panufnik and his friend Witold Lutosławski (1913-1994) were the two leading figures in Polish music in the years immediately following World War II. After his defection in 1954, Panufnik successfully rebuilt his career, eventually earning a prominent position in British musical life. Sinfonia di sfere—the fifth of Panufnik’s ten symphonies—received its first performance on April 13, 1976, at the Royal Festival Hall, with David Atherton conducting the London Symphony Orchestra. After the premiere, the composer Oliver Knussen devoted a full article to the new work in the journal Tempo.

The “spheres” of the title are globes that Panufnik visualized while working on this half-hour, one-movement work. “I felt,” he wrote, “that geometric shapes could provide my composition with an unseen skeleton within which harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic concepts could be bound together as a cohesive whole, an organized framework out of which both spiritual and poetic expression could freely flow.” Audiences may get an idea of this “skeleton” from the way the music evolves step by step from readily identifiable building blocks. In the course of the composition, one may notice a definite rise in intensity as the music moves from the “lower” to the “higher” spheres. Those spheres may occasionally intersect—in other words, certain elements in one sphere may hark back to the previous one or anticipate the next. Each “sphere” roughly corresponds to an ABA-like structure, with recurrent motifs and tempo levels, but the connections among the different types of musical material are far too subtle to be described by the traditional terms of variation, development, or recapitulation.

Panufnik’s spatial thinking affected the orchestration and the layout of instruments on the stage as well. One of the work’s distinctive features is the presence of three solo drummers, each playing on four drums of different sizes. The drums are placed, respectively, far left, far right, and back center, so that, in the composer’s words, “their sound constantly orbits the orchestra—alternately clockwise and anti-clockwise.” All the other instruments are enclosed within that circumference, with a piano in the middle, next to the conductor.

Each formal section in the work exhibits certain easily recognizable characteristics. The first “sphere” is definitely the lyrical-expressive one; its tone is set by an opening trumpet solo marked sempre appassionato. More instruments are subsequently featured in similarly “singing” roles. After a faster middle section that, by contrast, is dominated by staccatissimo (very short and detached) sounds, the lyricism of the opening returns, ending symmetrically with the initial trumpet melody.

The acoustic novelties in Sphere II are the mysterious col legno, sul tasto and pizzicato sounds of the strings (played, respectively, with the wood of the bow, with the hair of the bow on the fingerboard, and without bow, with players plucking the strings with their fingers). This slow passage gradually evolves into its own faster middle section, introduced once again by a trumpet solo—a vigorously rhythmic one this time, filled with rapid note repetitions requiring great virtuosity. The eerie string sounds return to close Sphere II.

Sphere III begins with a spectacular section for the three drummers alone. The momentum is carried forward as the other instruments join in. In the middle section, which in this case is slower, not faster, than the outer segments, the piano takes the lead, its opening solo followed by some meditative three-part counterpoint played, in turn, by three brass instruments, three strings, and three woodwinds. The ensuing Molto allegro is, in many ways, the summation of the entire work, leading up to the final climax.