Roxanna Panufnik – Celestial Bird – Ex Cathedra/Jeffrey Skidmore [Signum Classics]

4 of 5 stars

Roxanna Panufnik
Celestial Bird, and other choral works

Ex Cathedra
Various instrumentalists
Jeffrey Skidmore

Recorded 19 & 20 January 2018 at Bramall Music Building, University of Birmingham, England

Reviewed by: David Truslove

Reviewed: September 2018
Duration: 57 minutes



Roxanna Panufnik (born 1968) has steadily built up a catalogue of choral works, from which recent additions are collected by Signum, in its third Panufnik survey (previously sharing with her father and then with John Tavener), now with Jeffrey Skidmore and Ex Cathedra, conveying a broad spectrum of her style, informed by her interest in World Music and illustrated by the collaboration with England-based Indian-arts ensemble Milapfest.

Their singular partnership here, Unending Love, launches this release with what is arguably the most striking work of the dozen, an intriguing fusion of Indian and Western music setting Rabindranath Tagore. Milapfest provides a Carnatic singer, Indian violins, a sitar and two percussionists to give idiomatic support to choral writing based on ragas. Whether, given the scoring, it turns out to be an occasional piece or a nine-minute wonder remains to be seen.

Neither a conservative nor a progressive, Panufnik has forged an idiosyncratic language often using simultaneous major and minor harmonies. This is apparent in Celestial Bird, an a cappella setting of a mystical poem by Jessica Powers to which Panufnik fashions a gentle, understated response, marked by glowing harmonies and sinuous lines. It’s certainly attractive, and sung with affection, but whether it takes wing is another matter.

St Pancras Magnificat is set in Latin and opens with an arresting flourish, its subsequent harmonic and melodic meanderings making for pleasant listening, Skidmore drawing a warm tone from his excellent singers and also in the more atmospheric (and attached) Nunc Dimittis. O Hearken, a compilation of psalm verses, brings some refreshing fanfare figurations, and there is greater adventurousness in the use of Indian modes that weave through Child of Heaven, its joyful text from the Rig Veda amply realised.

Simpler in style but no less expressive are two works for voices and piano; Salve Regina (unison women’s voices) and A Cradle Song, the latter a radiant setting of William Blake that narrowly avoids sentimentality through periodic and distinctive dissonances. Beguiling and soothing, it’s Panufnik at her most individual.

Of the two substantial pieces for choir and (Western) instruments, Since We Parted is an evocative work (written to commemorate the centenary of the start of the Great War) that integrates texts on the theme of loss by Robert Bulwer-Lytton and Kathleen Coates. It’s a shame though that some of the writing for cello, piano, harp and trumpets feels bolted on to the choral writing and draws the ear away from the affecting words (included in the booklet) which Panufnik sets with great feeling.

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