Ex Cathedra: New Jerusalem

Parry, MacMillan, Panufnik

Part of Birmingham International Concert Season 2014/15 Concert Package, Ex Cathedra Season 2014/15 Concert Package, SoundBite, Birmingham International Concert Season 2014/15, Ex Cathedra Season 2014/15 and Vocal Music

Saturday 31st January

Town Hall

Ex Cathedra Choir and Ensemble
Jeffrey Skidmore conductor

Parry Jerusalem 10’
Roxanna Panufnik Since we Parted (world premiere) 8’
Parry Songs of Farewell 31’
James MacMillan Seven Angels (world premiere) 40’

Nostalgia has always been a potent force in British music but the emotions it provokes can look forward as well as back.

In this inspired programme, James MacMillan takes up where Elgar left off with a superb new choral work based on The Last Judgment, while a new work by Roxanna Panufnik, two much-loved favourites by Parry, evoke a century of great music.

Ex Cathedra is a Town Hall Associate Artist. http://www.thsh.co.uk


Review by Christopher Morley, Birmingham Post:

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…     “Between the two Parry offerings came the first of the evening’s premieres, Roxanna Panufnik’s Since We Parted, a wonderfully warm work of immense emotional sincerity interweaving two deeply-felt poems of lovers’ separations.

Robert Bulwer-Lytton’s mid-Victorian eponymous poem fused perfectly with Kathleen Coates’ A Year and a Day, written on the brink of the First World War, and Panufnik’s well-layered choral textures combined with adroit imagery from a tiny instrumental group to create a heart-stopping 10 minutes.

Four times its length was the evening’s other premiere, James MacMillan’s Seven Angels, bringing to life the Book of Revelations’ Last Judgment and picking up a century later on Elgar’s reluctance so to do in his own New Testament trilogy.

Sharing with Elgar a desire for performance authenticity, MacMillan makes extensive use of two shofars (temple fanfaring instruments) brilliantly alternating with natural trumpets at the lips of Mark Bennett and Simon Munday, high in the organ-loft.

There are also virtuoso parts for solo cello (Andrew Skidmore), harp (Lucy Wakeford) and percussion (Sarah Stuart).

And, of course, the chorus, from which soloists emerge in Ex Cathedra’s traditional manner. MacMillan’s vocal scoring shares the often improvisatory nature of Penderecki’s St Luke Passion, including swooping exhalations, whistling, rapid teeth-palate alternations, humming and the like, all with the effect of setting his more conventional, fully-harmonised choral writing into glorious prominence.

As Seven Angels progressed, naturally structured upon each of the seven angel’s fanfaring, towards its visionary conclusion, we arrived at a final F minor chord, and the sound was genuinely ecstatic.

I doubt this performance could ever be bettered. The stunned audience silence at the end could have gone on forever.”



Review by John Quinn, SeenandHeard, MusicWeb:

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…     “Roxanna Panufnik’s Since we Parted was commissioned by Ex Cathedra with the support of Jane Arthur. Jeffrey Skidmore had asked that the piece should remember the Great War and, if possible, should set words by or about women. Miss Panufnik combines lines by two poets. A verse by Robert Bulmer-Lytton (1831-1891), from which the work’s title derives, acts as a kind of refrain for the full choir and is heard on several occasions. In between the refrains come lines by Kathleen Coates (1890-1958) from a poem entitled ‘A Year and a Day’. The piece is scored for choir and a small ensemble of harp, piano, cello and a pair of trumpets, the latter being used with great restraint as far as dynamics are concerned. It plays for about ten minutes.

The refrain is wistful and quite gentle. I may be mistaken but I had the impression that the music was subtly varied at each re-appearance. The composer said that in this music she tried “to create a sense of yearning – with harmonies that lean into each other and suspensions that only partly resolve.” I’d say she succeeded. The Coates lines are set in two separate passages. The first is for female voices and here the textures were graceful and the music warm. The men have the second Coates passage and their music is more robust. The performance seemed, at a first hearing, to be expert and the composer, who was present, was clearly delighted.     […]


MacMillan chose as his text lengthy passages from the Book of Revelation in which St John describes that part of his vision when seven angels appear in succession, each to blow a dread fanfare to usher in further apocalyptic events. The angels were represented by two trumpeters, here placed behind and above the choir, next to the organ console. These trumpeters contributed a series of arresting fanfares, using not only trumpets but also natural trumpets and shofars, the primitive ram’s horn trumpets of Old Testament times, one of which Elgar deployed tellingly in The Apostles. In addition to the trumpeters the small accompanying ensemble comprised harp, cello and a battery of percussion, played indefatigably by one percussionist. It should be said straightaway that one of MacMillan’s many achievements in this score is to conjure a tremendous variety of arresting colours from just these five instrumentalists. This is just one way in which the score is highly imaginative.

Just as impressive is his writing for the choir. They have many passages of homophonic or polyphonic writing. In addition various other vocal techniques are employed, including Sprechstimme, glissandi, humming, shouting and whistling. The whistling occurs just before the appearance of the seventh angel and I suspect it’s intended to convey the sound of a great wind; if so, it works brilliantly. Indeed, all the various non-singing techniques made their mark and were relevant to the moment in the text at which they occurred; in other words, these techniques were not employed just for effect.

The words are intensely dramatic and MacMillan’s vast experience as a composer both of religious music and of operas equipped him extremely well to surmount the challenges of the text. Among many passages that caught my ear was a section, just before the appearance of the seventh angel, when the cello and tubular bells initiate a fast dance, the rhythms of which are excitingly irregular. This dance is sustained when the choir enters and it’s extremely effective. Effective too were the four passages for solo voices – bass, tenor, alto and soprano successively – which illustrate the appearances of the first four angels. Most imposing of all, however, was the music at the point to which the whole work had surely been aimed: the words beginning “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth”. Here the whole ensemble was united in a luminous outburst which gradually unwound to be followed by several more similar explosions of fervour. The work finished with the words “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.” The long silence that followed the conclusion of Seven Angels bore testimony to the power and eloquence of the piece we had just heard for the first time.

I confess that for the first few minutes I wasn’t sure what I would make of Seven Angels but this is a work that draws the listener in and which compels attention. The music is astonishingly inventive and imaginative, though I do wonder if the trumpet fanfares are not perhaps a little overdone. The performance by Ex Cathedra and the small instrumental ensemble was beyond praise. The music is clearly complex and extremely demanding yet not only was it put across with great assurance but also with the conviction that only thorough preparation and highly skilled execution can produce. The composer, who was enthusiastically applauded, looked delighted by the performance and I’m not surprised.

This was an unforgettable concert of memorable music superbly performed. I’m particularly keen to hear Seven Angels again for it is a profound and dramatic work that demands detailed listening and reflection; one hearing simply isn’t enough.”

Panufnik Centenary


Wednesday 24 September 2014 at 7.30pm

Symphony Hall, Birmingham +44 (0)121 345 0600

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra

Michael Seal  conductor
Peter Donohoe  piano

Stravinsky: Greeting Prelude 1′
Beethoven: Overture, Leonora No. 3 14′
Panufnik: Piano Concerto 24′
Listen on Spotify

Wagner: Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde 18′
Listen on Spotify
Watch on YouTube

Panufnik: Symphony No.2 (Sinfonia Elegiaca) 24′
Listen on Spotify

When Andrzej Panufnik escaped from communist Poland, Britain offered him a home – and so it was that one of Europe’s greatest post-war composers became principal conductor of the CBSO. Tonight, on what would have been his 100th birthday, we celebrate with some of the music Panufnik conducted in Birmingham, and two of his own finest works: as fresh and communicative today as when he conducted them here himself.

Supported by the Adam Mickiewicz Institute as part of Polska Music programme Polska Music

If you like this concert, you might also like:
War and Peace, Thursday 6th November
Brahms and Beethoven, Wednesday 25th March 2015 & Saturday 28 March 2015
Parsifal, Sunday 17th May 2015


Pre-concert talk at 6.15pm
Panufnik Centenary
Composer Roxanna Panufnik talks about her father Andrzej, in conversation with Jessica Duchen.


Interview with Roxanna Panufnik, by Christopher Morley, Birmingham Post:

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“With possibly the neatest scheduling ever, the CBSO’s concert at Symphony Hall on September 24 celebrates the centenary to the day of the birth of one of its previous principal conductors, Andrzej Panufnik.

Born in Warsaw into a highly musical family, and with a mother of British origins, Panufnik studied composition and conducting during the years preceding the Second World War. The Warsaw Uprising of 1944 saw the destruction of his works (he reconstructed some later), and after a post-war period conducting orchestras in Warsaw and Krakow Panufnik decided to devote himself to composition.

Hugely patriotic, he loathed the Stalinist regime then prevailing in his native country, and in 1954, whilst in Switzerland conducting recordings of his own music, he and his British-born first wife managed to escape to the West.

In 1956 it was announced that principal conductor Rudolf Schwarz would be leaving the CBSO at the end of the season to succeed Sir Malcolm Sargent at the helm of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and the hunt was on for Schwarz’ replacement. Rather similar to the process going on now at the CBSO, as they seek a successor to Andris Nelsons, guest conductors were invited to give “audition” concerts, and Panufnik was among them.”     …



Review by Richard Whitehouse, ClassicalSource:

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…     “Nor was Donohoe fazed by the uncoiled aggression of the Molto agitato finale, which fuses elements from its predecessors (powered by some visceral work from the percussion) as well as building to a bracing apotheosis via an accompanied cadenza such as ranks with the composer’s most thrilling passages. A timely revival of an impressive work.

Following the interval, the ‘Prelude and Liebestod’ from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde (1859) further opened out the concert’s expressive remit – Seal keeping the former’s distanced ambiguity in focus on the way to a fervent culmination and fatalistic close, while ensuring that the ‘Liebestod’ brought the requisite transcendence during its radiant closing pages. Not music one might readily associate with Panufnik, yet it was an overt presence in that of Szymanowski – in turn an early (and an obliquely enduring) influence on his Polish successor.

Transcendence of a different kind is evinced in Sinfonia elegiaca – the second of Panufnik’s ten Symphonies, completed in 1957 on the basis of material from his discarded Symphony of Peace of six years earlier. Shorn of its propagandist choral component, the piece stands as a finely achieved statement at a time of personal and political turmoil – whose three continuous movements move from a Molto andante that alternates between pensive woodwind chorale and ravishing string cantilena, via a Molto allegro whose barbarity is (just) held in check by its formal subtlety, to another Molto andante such as utilises earlier ideas along with a new string threnody before it ethereally recollects the work’s opening. A committed response from the CBSO was ably controlled by Seal to the evident appreciation of the audience.”     …



Review by Christopher Morley, Birmingham Post:

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…     “Various composers were brought to mind here: bustling Prokofiev, night-music Bartok, stark Ives, rippling Ravel, but all of them assimilated into an urgently communicative personality all Panufnik’s own.

Even more urgent is Panufnik’s Symphony no.2, the “Sinfonia Elegiaca”, an anti-war protest against violence and aggression, and given its British première here in 1958.

Tellingly scored, generously melodic, and unflinching dramatic (such blaring horns in the central section’s mad display of violence), this is a work of immense emotional and musical strength, and deserves a whole raft of hearings, not least in these times where we remember and where we dread.

The CBSO responded with grateful enthusiasm.

For the rest, we heard Stravinsky’s wittily precise Greeting Prelude, a Beethoven Leonore no.3 Overture in which Seal drew a huge sound from the CBSO which only Symphony Hall could comfortably accommodate (portentous offstage trumpet, too), and a Prelude and Liebestod from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde phrased and shaped with a well-judged feel for the music’s harmonic pacing.”



Review by Roderic Dunnett, MusicWeb SeenandHeard:

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…     “……And profundity. For if this memorable concert, which included a massive tranche of Wagner’s Tristan and for some the most satisfying of Beethoven’s overtures to Fidelio, the almost symphonic Leonore no. 3, both in handsome performances from all the orchestral sections (duly congratulated at the end) under Seal’s sensibly judged leadership, stirred the depths of emotion – that of the love-lorn Leonora and love-torn Isolde – it was in Panufnik’s second symphony (the second of ten), the Sinfonia Elegiaca (Panufnik, a year younger than Britten, liked such titles: Sacra, Rustica, Mystica, Votiva), a profound lament for war and its victims of all kind (the composer lived through the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto, and the fatal 1944 uprising encouraged by Russia and crushed by the Nazis, but he widens his vision to a worldwide conspectus of suffering), with its a slow-fast-slow (ie double-andante, almost double-adagio layout) that from its almost Vaughan Williams-like, nervously serene opening generates a grieving one might look for in, say, Shostakovich 7, Tchaikovsky 6 or the aching tragedy of Karl Amadeus Hartmann’s 1939 Concerto Funèbre.

Panufnik’s determination to work with tiny cells – major-minor thirds, or elsewhere seconds – reflects a Beethovenian precision and a Haydnesque incisiveness. It worked better here, in this elegy, than in his Piano Concerto, despite Peter Donohoe’s valiant efforts, looking a bit like a peak-scaling John Ogdon, to make multiple decoration work. Such toccata-like writing put one in mind of Malcolm Williamson’s similar propensity in Hyperion’s magnificent new recording of all Williamson’s piano concerti, CDA 68011/2. But it did not impact in the way this magnificent and moving symphony, punctuated by massive CBSO brass ostinati did, an opening cor anglais elegy, and strange feelings from string harmonics at both the start and chiasmic close that sounded almost bewilderingly like that rarely-used French instrument, the theremin, which generates such eerie terror in the film noir scores of Miklós Rózsa. If one had to compare Panufnik’s strange brand of modalism to another, it might just be to near-neighbour Kodály at his height.”     …