The Cello Concerto was Andrzej Panufnik’s last large work, written in the last months of his life.It was commissioned by the London Symphony Orchestra with Mstislav Rostropovich as the soloist. The Concerto was written in the summer of 1991 and was completed on 19/9./91 – the composer put an exclamation mark next to the date in the manuscript, as he was amazed by its symmetry, close to his artistic ideals and discernible in many of his works. The Cello Concerto, too, is largely based on principles of symmetry and a selected geometric figure. In his programme note, Panufnik wrote:
As in my past works, a certain internalised vision of geometric proportions gave me the structure for the whole composition – this time the mandorla, the palindromic almond-shaped figure in the centre of two equal, overlapping circles, which I have often observed woven into the designs of ancient religious art and architecture. I was intrigued by the idea that each movement of the Concerto could be a palindrome within itself as well as a reflection of each other.
The Concerto consists of two movements. Both are highly contrasted in terms of expression and character – the first, Adagio, is in dark, even gloomy colours; the second, Vivace, is very rhythmical, contains elements of scherzando, but is not cheerful – it leaves us with a feeling of anxiety. The first movement is based on expansive cantilenas, with the various voices being treated polyphonically, while in the second movement it is the just opposite – cantilenas give way to dance-like rhythms, precisely played by homophonically treated instruments of the orchestra. In terms of dynamics, too, the movements are contrasted: the initial Adagio on the piano-forte-piano arch is reflected in the dynamic forte-piano-forte arch of the second movement, Vivace.
Once again, we are dealing with a very precisely constructed form in a work by Panufnik, where the structure of both the whole and the various elements follows the principles of symmetry, which in this case is determined by the figure of the mandorla.
At the same time, however, with his Cello Concerto the composer paid tribute to Rostropovich, the great Russian soloist for whom the work was written, and to the LSO, with which he maintained friendly relations for many years:
The cello is my favourite musical instrument but in writing this Concerto I was above all inspired by my deep admiration for the great interpretative powers of Mstislav Rostropovich and my joy that he had asked me to write this work.
I am proud also that this is my third commission from the London Symphony Orchestra. This time I decided to limit the choice of instruments and to spotlight some of the principal instrumentalists while accommodating also the soloist's preference for a modest-sized orchestra (5 wind instruments, drums and strings).
This limited choice of instruments included two oboes, two clarinets, the horn, percussion and a reduced string section. It might seem that against such a background the cello part would stand out strongly, but Panufnik brings the soloist into a dialogue with the orchestral ensemble, making both equal partners in transmitting the emotional content. The cello is not treated in a strictly virtuoso manner; rather, the composer wants to show the beauty of its sound as well as the depth of expression – even in the solo cadenza introduced towards the end of the second movement. As a result, the Cello Concerto is an affecting, dramatic and very moving work.It was premiered after the composer’s death, during a concert dedicated to him on 24 June 1992 at the Barbican Hall in London. Mstislav Rostropovich was the soloist and the London Symphony Orchestra was conducted by Hugh Wolff.