Roxanna Panufnik: Her emotional gutsiness packs a hefty punch (Keith Saunders)
In a studio at the bottom of a west London garden, one of Britain's most individual and recognisable composers is hard at work. Roxanna Panufnik, now in her forties and a mother of three, manages her schedule with a quiet determination that on the surface scarcely indicates the vibrant inner life and intensity of her art.
This month sees the world premiere of perhaps her most extraordinary task to date: Tallinn Mass: Dance of Life, a cantata incorporating both the Latin Mass and 19 poems in Estonian — a language she doesn't speak. Its first performance on June 30, in Tallinn, celebrates the city's tenure as European Capital of Culture. Talking it through over a well-earned cup of tea, she confirms that it has been "one of the biggest challenges I've ever faced in my professional life."
Panufnik explains that she has fitted the poems around the movements of the Mass to reflect and amplify their meaning. The process has involved rigorous exploration of the language to make sure she is using the correct stresses and meanings; and throughout she has drawn strongly on Estonian folksong melodies. The instrumentation includes the kannel, a dulcimer-like folk instrument, plus an evocation of the church bells of Tallinn.
She has never been one to shirk a challenge: that research process, if unusually demanding, is typical of the way she likes to work. Last year she asked me to write the words for a new piece commissioned from her by the acclaimed male-voice choir Chanticleer in San Francisco, to form part of a programme of choral works telling the story of Jesus's life. Panufnik's chosen section was the childhood of Christ. She was drawn to a story from the Gnostic Gospels in which the boy Jesus restores to life the dead child of a grieving mother.
We decided to root the work's imagery in the ancient Jewish community in which it might have taken place. But this would need to be matched with appropriate music. Consultations with the Jewish music expert Alexander Knapp and a visit to a synagogue cantor brought Panufnik to some ancient Yemenite melodies for the Kaddish (the Jewish prayer for the dead), the oldest of which duly became a vital component of the work. Despite having written its libretto, I was bowled over by the finished piece of music, Let Me In: Panufnik's setting has an emotional gutsiness and an anguished, bitonal harmonic language that combines with the energy of the ancient chant to pack a hefty punch.