Thursday 23 January 2014

Panufnik - Dance of Life: Tallinn Mass

Roxanna Panufnik - Dance of Life
Roxanna Panufnik Dance of Life - Tallinn Mass: Tallinn Chamber Orchestra, Patricia Rozario, Mihhail Gerts: Warner Classics
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jan 23 2014
Star rating: 4.0

Ancient and modern, new work inspired by 15th century Dance of Death

Roxanna Panufnik's Dance of Life - Tallinn Mass is a large scale dramatic work which incorporates elements of the mass with other dramatic elements. Written for the Tallinn Philharmonic to celebrate Tallin's designation as European Capital of Culture in 2011, the work is here receiving its first recording performed by the Estonia TV Girls Choir, Collegium Musicale Chamber Choir, Choir of Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre and Tallinn Chamber Orchestra conducted by Mihhail Gerts with Patricia Rozario, Jaak Johanson, Laura Lindpere and Madis Metsamart. The text juxtaposes the Latin mass movements with ten new poems by Estonian poets Doris Kareva and Jurgen Rooste.

Rather bravely Panufnik set the work in Estonian, as the poems are inspired by the Dance of Death, a 15th century painting in Tallin's St. Nicholas Church. The soloists in the work are soprano Patricia Rozario who plays Elu (Life), and Jaak Johanson as the narrator, plus Laura Linpere playing the kennel which is an Estonia psaltery, plus Madis Metsamart on percussion.

The narrator is played by Jaak Johanson and the first thing we have to get used to is that he is narrating in English, not his native tongue. The work was written in Estonian but is here recorded in a poetic English version by Jessica Duchen. The structure is essential a series of characters from the Dance of Death, each one responded to by Life (Patricia Rozario) with the movements of the mass threading their way through. With each character Life offers hope to them, inviting them to the Dance of Life. The narrations are all done as melodramas, though Panufnik's underscoring is relatively discreet.

After an introductory narration, comes the Kyrie with high voices and bells, then joined by lower voices, ecstatic. The narrator then introduces the character of Life in the person of soprano Patricia Rozario who has an extended and rapturous solo, bluesy elements combining with hints of the dance of life.

We next introduced to a beggar by the narrator Johanson, done as melodrama. Roxario's Life reassures the beggar in a solo heavy with tuned percussion and the suggestion of dance beats. Next we are introduced to the spy in further melodrama. Life (Roxario) responds with disdain in a rather uneasy solo, again with significant tuned percussion. This leads to a reprise of the Kyrie, with some lovely ecstatic textures combining voices and percussion.

Next comes the mayor, with Johanson's narration accompanied by rhythmic chanting from the choir in a highly successful passage. This is followed by the Gloria of the mass, which envelops a solo for Rozario. The rather anxious, awkward line for Rozario contrasts with the more tuneful setting of the Gloria, which sets the choir in quite spare textures with just some hints of percussion, leading to a radiant close.

The Credo takes introduces us to the banker, a rather stressed figure whose text is accompanied by bells tolling away his life. Life (Rozario) responds by talking of evil temptations in a rather edgy arioso with awkward intervals brilliantly realised by Rozario. There follows the Latin Credo, with again voices and percussion predominating. It weaves elements of the well known plainchant credo into other textures to create a fascinating textures.

With the Sanctus and Benedictus we meet the Prostitute who is all bravado, with a bluesy hint in the music underneath. This continues into Rozario's solo in which Life talks of hearing the Prostitute crying underneath. This leads into the Sanctus where Panufnik contrasts chant inflected vocal line with the tuned percussion leading to a dance like Hosanna and a serene Benedictus.

We next meet the Ad Man, introduced with a solo from Rozario as Life, who cannot decide her attitude to him. This leads into a lovely expressive Agnus Dei, overlaid with a solo from Rozario which at first sounds as if too many words are being fitted in. A reprise of the Kyrie leads to a final word from the preacher before a final ecstatic solo from Rozario where the hints of the eternal dance link to other of Roxana Panufnik's works.

In a number of places on the disc I was aware that I was listening to a translation, Estonian and English are very different languages and no matter how expressive Jessica Duchen's words are there is the feeling that words and music do not quite fit together. I can understand why the recording was made in English, but I can't help wishing that they'd used the original Estonian.

At the CD launch (see my article) Panufnik explained that a number of Estonian folk-songs thread their way through the work, and the bell chimes which are a feature are all based on real chimes in Tallinn. But she has finely woven all this into her own language so you never feel any of these elements standing out, they simply meld into an attractive whole.

Dance of Life - Tallinn Mass, is a fascinating work but it one that seems to have not quite yet found its ideal form. That said the performances are all exemplary with Patricia Rozario giving a superb performance of the rapturous soprano solos. The choirs do thrilling and sterling work, bringing Panufnik's writing thrillingly to life well supported by the orchestra under Mihhail Gerts find direction.

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