Two forces were at play at the London Symphony Orchestra’s concert at the Barbican on Wednesday night. The first, loudly pronounced, was the beginning of the centenary celebrations for composer Andrzej Panufnik. Panufnik’s fortunes have been mixed; once a celebrated composer in his homeland, his music was banned in Poland for 23 years after he fled to the UK, and the centenary offers a welcome chance to revisit his oeuvre. The second, running through as an unspoken whisper until violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter paid tribute at the end, was that the concert had originally been intended for the baton of Sir Colin Davis.
Instead, the honour fell to Michael Francis, former LSO double bassist and current principal conductor of the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra. He and the orchestra had a packed-out hall awaiting them, but the tube strike left its mark on the evening – before the start of the first half, it was announced that the Anne-Sophie Mutter was delayed, resulting in Dvořák’s Violin Concerto and Symphony no. 9 swapping places in the programme.
However, the concert began as planned, with Panufnik’s Sinfonia Sacra. Composed in 1966, it celebrates a millennium of Christianity in Poland. It is based on the medieval chant Bogurodzica, and is split into two parts; the first is further divided into three “Visions”, while the second takes the form of a hymn. The Visions are based on tiny fragments from the “Bogurodzica”, which is finally heard in full in the Hymn.
The opening horn fanfare in Vision 1 was spikily played and conducted, and while the second Vision had a smoother tone, more detail and shape could have been coaxed out of it by Francis. The third Vision really came alive, with violent aggression, although it was not always together. Francis really brought out the hefty percussion sounds to reinforce the menace of the minor seconds littered throughout the movement. The final Hymn eventually reached the heights of devotion, but overall the performance lacked the nuanced warmth clearly there within the music.
The pairing of Dvořák and Panufnik is perhaps explained by their nationalism, although both composers framed it in different ways. Dvorak’s Ninth Symphony is subtitled “From the New World”, as if looking across to his Czech homeland from New York. It is only really in the second movement that one gets a feeling of the American countryside.
Francis and the orchestra seemed more at home here, with more attention paid to the subtleties within the piece. The ensemble tripped slightly in the opening movement, but the expansive drama was thoroughly realised. The cor anglais solo in the second movement felt like a warm bath, and the pared down sextet restating the theme towards the end was exquisite, although some of the tempo changes were a little clumsy. There was a lively, folkish quality to the third movement, while the march of the fourth movement was wonderfully bombastic. A little Americana was brought out in the smooth clarinet solo, which had shades of Gershwin in it, before returning us squarely to Europe as a myriad of themes exhausted themselves into one final chord.
The highlight of the evening was Lullaby, an extraordinary beautiful string piece that was decades ahead of its time. Written in 1947 and revised in 1955, Panufnik was inspired by the view from Waterloo Bridge whilst on a conducting visit to London. The orchestra is divided so that each instrument has an entirely individual part, including different tunings and use of microtones underneath a Polish peasant song, which passes from section to section. It is deceptively simple in its construction, and yet fiendishly difficult to bring to life.
The LSO captured the piece’s haunting, broken-music-box quality, sounding at once totally contemporary and like a child’s lullaby. Aside from a few slightly heavy moments in the solo melody instruments, the deft performance was utterly entrancing.
Then at last we were joined by Anne-Sophie Mutter for Dvořák’s Violin Concerto. Perhaps her travelling travails had unsettled her, as there were a few wobbles of intonation within her rhapsodic playing in the first movement. Once more there was a distinct lack of nuance, which made for a rather relentless and sometimes brittle experience. Mutter and the orchestra became more sweetly lyrical in the Adagio, although again, it was not always together. The third movement started with great contrasts between the lovely lightness of touch from Mutter and the brute strength of the full orchestra neatly conjuring up the Furiant, the arrogant man. However, Francis increasingly struggled to keep up with Mutter, and by the end it felt like a race to the finish, leaving one to wonder how it might have been had Sir Colin still been with us.