Deep maternal instincts
Roxanna Panufnik: Magnificat

St Hildegard of Bingen set to music the “Magnificat”, Mary’s exultant post-Annunciation poem to music, but, so far as we know, did so like all men, without the experience of childbirth behind her. Of female composers, Elisabeth Lutyens set it after having had children, and mother-of-three Roxanna Panufnik has provided a setting for double choir and organ which received its UK premiere this week at St Pancras Church during the London Festival of Contemporary Church Music. Together with its partner canticle, the “Nunc Dimittis”, it was commissioned by the Exultate Singers, who have established a fruitful relationship with the composer. Panufnik’s “Magnificat” is a work which combines, sometimes uncomfortably, the varied emotions felt by a mother-to-be: the excitement of creation, the fear of labour, the apprehension for the future burden of responsibility.

The “Mag and Nunc” are the propers at evensong, the singing of which is more an Anglican than a Roman tradition, so to emphasise her Catholic heritage, and perhaps ecumenical intent, Panufnik mixes the familiar English lyrics with those of the Latin Ave Maria. “Macaronic” pieces combining (as in macaroni) different languages were quite common in Elizabethan England, although the most famous example is Britten’s “Hymn to the Virgin”. In Panufnik, chords and words overlap so that one catches only snatches like overheard lines of conversation. The running organ accompaniment (Richard Johnson) suggests veins coursing with new blood, one of the physical changes conception brings, Panufnik told us at a pre-concert talk.

Conductor David Ogden flapped his arms like a large, graceful bird describing the flow of the soaring phrases. The singers beamed back. The mood changed with the words: tenors and basses sang “He hath shown strength” sternly and the organ interjected with hard, bright, exciting bursts which suggested the influence of that other Britten anthem Rejoice in the Lamb. The sound swelled at “He hath filled” and the organ’s satisfying low notes felt like a full belly. The art of word-painting is not dead. Panufnik made frequent use of the jerky “Scotch snap” rhythm in odd places as if she felt an extemporal kicking in the womb.

An ecstatic “Gloria” followed without a break. The impressive choir filled the voluminous nave. Convention allows a composer to use the same music for the doxology of the “Nunc Dimittis” and Panufnik duly does, cunningly conjuring it from different precursive music. The “Nunc”, still in Latin and English, begins with a magical a capella. Panufnik brightens the texture and adds the organ only at “For mine eyes”, colouring “people” with a melisma and snapping almost tetchily the word “glory”.

Although it was the main item, Panufnik’s setting of the evening canticles was the only work in the programme not for cello and choir. These included her own All Shall Be Well, written in memory of her father, the composer Andrzej Panufnik; Tavener’s Svyati in which the cello floats heavenward by octaves; Francis Grier’s powerful multi-movement cantata Sword in the Soul, written for BBC Radio 4 in 1991; and Knut Nystedt’s Stabat Mater which, in recounting the same mother’s agony watching her son die, contrasted tellingly with the “Magnificat”. Exultate relished the hungry rhythms of the original Latin verse which Nystedt preserves, delivered his staccatos like nails, and fired the cellist Richard May, whose long melodies soared like the ascending soul.

Rick Jones