Violin and Cello Concertos released on CD

Christopher’s Violin and Cello Concertos have been released on CD by Discovery Music & Vision.

For more information or to buy the CD on this website here.

Watch a short video trailer for the CD.

 

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June 3, 2016 |

The Royal Festival Hall – wrecked by boozing?

Philharmonia, Ashkenazy, Royal Festival Hall

Even though the Royal Festival Hall was only half full, it had been a magical evening with the Philharmonia and Ashkenazy giving of their absolute best in an all Sibelius programme. A special highlight was to hear that rarity, “Luonnotar,” with Helena Juntunen singing her heart out, and there were other delights too –  the seldom performed Pelléas et Mélisande suite, and a selection of poignant songs previously unknown to me. In part two, the great composer’s Symphony no 2 was given a performance of enormous vitality and sensitivity which breathed Finland’s woods and lakes from start to finish.

It was one of those concerts after which you hardly dared speak, and indeed there was a time when you could wander along the river by night, thinking quietly about the music you’d just heard. You see, the South Bank is where I grew up musically; it was here I heard Pierre Monteux conducting Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloe and Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms. One night I heard Klemperer conducting the Brahms Requiem, and the memory still lingers. Years later, there were ground-breaking performances of his own music by Boulez, and another occasion which sticks in the mind was Kurt Sanderling conducting Mahler’s Ninth one Sunday afternoon. After that I roamed by the Thames unable to hold back tears as I watched the dark waters racing by. The list of formative events could go on and on, and even include a few occasions when I was fortunate enough to occupy the RFH conductor’s dressing room myself.

To build London’s major concert hall by the river was a stroke of genius, and we should be grateful to the Labour politician Herbert Morrison for driving the project through. When it opened in 1951, it was among the most progressive concert halls anywhere in the world, and despite various acoustic issues, it is still widely loved with its wide open spaces and sweeping staircases, the whole exuding an atmosphere of restrained dignity. But what of the area in which it now sits? Since the redevelopment in 2005-7, there has been a proliferation of bars and restaurants – I counted more than twenty. Then there’s a collection of market stalls between the hall and road, serving chocolates, ice creams and street food. Walk a little further and there are pubs and umpteen more restaurants. “Good!” you might think, it’s nice to have somewhere to go before and after a concert. But wait – few of the customers are going to a concert, a film at the NFT or a play at the National Theatre. No, they’re here to eat and drink – and to drink a lot.

Back to my Sibelius concert, with that wonderful music playing to a half-filled hall. I came out, and wanted to saunter quietly along the Thames and Hungerford Bridge. From each eatery/drinkery loud music pumped out. Ten thousand people shouted to make themselves heard above the din. Empty beer bottles and dog-ends lined the rails overlooking the river. It was no better walking along towards Shakespeare’s Globe. where another few thousand congregated to shout at one another. What I’m saying is that a boozing culture has invaded London’s prime cultural hub and frankly it’s pretty much wrecked.

I once asked a waiter in one of the eateries how often he attended a concert. “They have concerts in there?” was the reply, such is the disconnect between the venue and its environs. I thought it was okay when you could get decent food in the hall itself, and the Skylon restaurant is still good, with its fabulous river views. I like Foyles too, although I wish there were more music books. The other places? They belong in the high streets, railway stations, and airports, but not here; this shouldn’t be yet another destination for hoorey henries and yobs intent on nothing more than a piss-up.

Christopher Gunning, June 2015

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PROM 52: Param Vir’s new commission, Sibelius, Bantock, Elgar

 

PROM 52, 21st August 2013, Royal Albert Hall, London

 

Param Vir, Sibelius, Bantock, Elgar, Lisa Batiasvili, violin, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Sakari Oramo, conductor. (CG)
Param Vir: Cave of the Luminous Mind (The Transcendent Journey of Milarepa) (2013) – BBC commission, world premiere.

Sibelius: Violin Concerto in D minor, Op 47 (1903, revised 1905)

Granville Bantock: Celtic symphony, for string orchestra and harps (1940)

Elgar: Variations on an Original Theme (“Enigma”) (1898-9)

 

Param Vir’s Cave of Luminous Mind is one of this year’s major Proms commissions. The work is dedicated to the late Jonathan Harvey, one of Vir’s teachers and a great source of inspiration. Tibetan Buddihism, as in Vir’s previous work, is central to the work’s origins and I can do no better than quote a paragraph of the composer’s own programme note: “My work is a tribute to Tibet’s rich spiritual tradition that has kept alive the unparalleled tenets of Buddhist teaching, most especially the meditational disciplines that lead to peacce and enlightenment, despite Tibet herself suffering most cruelly at the hands of an alien, occupying power since the 20th century.”

 

There are two contrasting movements. The first is slow and largely based on quiet clusters and string glissandi which unwind very slowly. Against these effects are pitted short, stark outbursts from various sections of the orchestra. Melodic fragments also appear  and disappear, Vir always displaying a keen ear for soft luminous colours. It’s imaginitively done and strangely beautiful. If I eventually grew restless, it was because I failed to detect connections between the many and various fragments and eventually the soft winding glissandi, nearly always present, palled somewhat; maybe I wasn’t in a sufficiently meditative frame of mind.

 

The second movement is a far more lively afair, as Vir expresses Tibetan meditational transormation. Again the orchestra sparkled with luminosity, and here there is writing for the orchestra of considerable virtuosity. I was periodically reminded of early period Stravinsky although the harmonic language is hardly comparible. As the movement progresses, things become increasingly dramatic and complex. At a particularly important point, all momentum ceases, and the cellos are given a longish melody which is taken up by the upper strings and in the final pages the whole orchestra bursts forth with increasingly entangled perrorations.

 

There is no doubting the skill and seriousness of this composer, and Vir has produced a work of great interest and drama. The thrills and spills from the orchestra are terribly impressive; there are also formiddable parts for the piano and harp and a gigantic percussion section. If I grew impatient with what I perceived as a certain lack of connection from episode to episode my feelings were not shared by all. My friend loved every minute of it and when I dared express a slightly negative view grew rather cross! – so I will listen again on iPlayer, and I suggest, dear reader, that you listen for yourself too.

 

The next item, Sibelius’s Violin Concerto,  also presented some difficulties. It’s a great favourite of mine, and I’m sorry to say this performance did not always do it for me. Lisa Batiashvili is a very confident and gifted player and, barring one or two excusable intonation fluffs, negotiated the first movement’s technical difficulties as if most didn’t exist. However this movement was curiously lacking in drama or sufficient depth of expression; partly this was due to her resistance to take her time over things generally – it all seemed quite breathless to me. Did the orchestra also feel as if on auto-pilot? Strange.

 

The second movement fared better, although once again I felt soloist and orchestra could have lingered a little more. In the final movement Batiashvili displayed her formiddable technique and seemed happiest here. Her encore was an arrangement of Tsintsadze’s “Lele;” a Georgian piece few would have known prior to the concert, but charming in its way.

 

The Celtic Symphony is one of several Bantock works to be performed at the Proms this year, following a lengthy period of almost total neglect. During his own lifetime, things were remarkably different and Bantock was regarded as one of Britain’s greatest composers, much admired by Elgar and Vaughan Williams among others. The late Vernon Handley was largely responsible for keeping the Bantock flame from bbeing totally extintuished, but despite ardent support from him and some other dedicated supporters, Bantock has remained a background figure, talked of in respectful terms but seldom played. His music is steeped in tradition in general, and the functional tonality of the late romantics in particular. Once Vaughan Williams, and then the likes of Britten and Tippett came on the scene, Bantock’s world became an unfashionable one, but now we can listen once again with fresh ears and it will be interesting to see if his music gains general support once more.

 

It would be thrilling to report that this almost forgotten man’s work reveals blazing genius, but the Celtic Symphony doesn’t quite support such a view. Bantock’s world is a quieter, more intimate place, where gentle melodies and sometimes mystical harmonies reside. The Celtic Symphony is beautifully written for his chosen string orchestra and – wait for it – six harps! We are in the dreamy landscapes of Scotland, but with dance-like rhythms and themes never far away. The mysterious atmospheres were beautifully presented by Oramo, the pianissimo strings perfectly balanced and oh, so breathtakingly quiet! When things livened up, the strings responded to Oramo with joyous vivacity and we were reminded of Sibelius’s more energetic moments or even Bartok’s flirtations with folk/dance music. The whole piece was really beautifully played, including the one area towards the end where the harps predominate. It’s all lovely – unpretentious and never “pushy,” and if you tire of the full-square phrases and, to twenty-first century ears, relatively unadventurous rhythms, then perhaps you can enjoy some quietitude and Scottish geniality?

 

I loved Oramo’s appraoch to the Enigma Variations too. This is a conductor determined to get to grips with British music, and how thankful we should be for that! There was nothing to object to in his choice of tempi for each variation – no major surprises, no distortions, no gimmics.  Moreover there was plenty to admire as the various soloists from the BBC SO took their turns. If I mention Richard Hosford’s clarinet solo in “Romanza,” and Norbert Blume’s viola solo in “Ysobel” I don’t mean to belittle the many other solo passages which caught my ear – all were excellent. If I didn’t burst into tears during “Nimrod” this time, it’s no matter – there were several other variations that brought a tightened brow – the whimsical “Dorabella” and “B.G.N” for instance. I would have preferred to hear more from the organ (yes MORE from the Albert Hall’s organ!) during the finale, where as my friend remarked, you hear Elgar returning home after visiting his friends, but never mind, Oramo still brought this work, and this concert, to a splendid conclusion.

 

Christopher Gunning

August 22, 2013 |

Ian Bostridge, Daniel Harding and the LSO honour Sir Colin Davis with Tippett, Britten and Elgar.

 

PROM 51, 20h August 2013, Royal Albert Hall, London

 

Tippett, Britten, Elgar, Ian Bostridge, tenor, London Symphony Orchestra, Daniel Harding, conductor.
Tippett: Fanfare no. 5 – Fanfare from The Mask of Time arr. M Bowen. (1986)
Tippett: Concerto for Double String Orchestra (1938-9)
Britten:  Les Illuminations Op.18 (1939)

Elgar:  Symphony no 2 in Eb major Op 63(1909-11)

 

Tonight’s concert by the LSO was dedicated to the memory of Sir Colin Davis, who would have conducted it had he not died in April of this year. Roger Wright, in a programme tribute, wrote that Sir Colin would have included a symphony by Sibelius as well as the works by Britten and Tippett. Davis loved Sibelius but in the event we had Elgar’s 2nd Symphony instead, included because “it is a piece which contains farewell references; it is by a composer close to Colin’s heart and of whose music he was such a very fine interpreter.”

 

If you thought this programme was to be a “safe” celebration of British music from the early 20th Century, think again. All three composers in their different ways were affected by the politics of the period and this was one of several reasons why the evening proved to be so interesting and affecting.

 

For me the Tippett fanfare, performed with appropriate gusto by the LSO’s brass and percussion, managed to outstay its welcome even in its brief 5 minutes, but if it’s hardly top-drawer stuff, the Concerto for Double String Orchestra most certainly is. Its sprightly jazz-influenced rhythms knocked players aback in the 1940’s and it took a recording by the young Benjamin Britten for concert promoters and audiences to wake up to the fact that this is a highly original, brilliantly constructed, and wonderfully attractive piece. But this is not simply “easy listening” music. In 1939 Britain was about to be plunged into WW2, and it shows in the uneasy counterpoint between opposing forces, as well as the deeply expressive music in the central, slow movement.

 

Many of Tippett’s hallmarks are to be found here; the counterpoint stems from Baroque influences, the forms hark back to Beethoven, and of course those bluesy/jazzy melodic inflections which help give much of Tippett’s music its very personal flavour, are present too. That middle movement is particularly beautiful, and here Tippett’s love of folksong plays a role. If both Tippett and Britten were to react against the nostalgia of Vaughan Williams’s view of folk material, and find new ways of doing things, they both shared the senior master’s love of it.

 

In 2013, players no longer find any difficulty in tackling Tippett’s cross-rhythms, as was demonstrated by the strings of the LSO under Harding. The outer movements were lively and pointed, and the middle movement simply beautiful, with calmly expressive solos from Carmine Lauri (the leader) and Rebecca Gilliver (cello.) Overall, I loved the unforced way in which the piece was interpreted by the soloists and ensemble as a whole.

 

Britten was working on Les Illuminations at the same time as Tippett on his Double Concerto, and juxtaposing the two works demonstrated some of the radically different ways in which the two composers thought – as well as some similarities. Britten would always be the more “natural” of the two, composing at a rate of knots, and producing works with a flair for melody, texture, colour, and a genius for working in relatively small-scale forms which nevertheless pack a powerful emotional punch. No doubt some of the  turbulence of the settings is attributable to the imminent war; Britten, like Tippett, was to become a conscientious objector, and sought temporary refuge in the US, and how destabilising the times must have been to the young composer.

 

The nine main sections which make up Les Illuminations are settings of poems by Arthur Rimbaud, whose hallucinatory way of looking at things greatly appealed to Britten. The string writing is astonishingly fluent and varied for a composer in his mid-twenties, and the word setting already shows Britten in command of techniques which would see him through to the end of his life, even if he would always be happiest when setting the English language. How lucky we were to have the opportunity of hearing the remarkable Ian Bostridge let loose on this early and appealing work. Clear diction, perfect intonation, a vocal quality which simply melts your heart but is strong enough to carry to the farthest reaches of the Albert Hall – what more could you possibly want? One almost felt Bostridge to be a perfect synthesis of Rimbaud and Britten as he swooped and dived, yet gave us sensual cantabile lines when needed. I felt this to be a quite outstanding performance, with Harding and the LSO’s strings doing everything just perfectly. And yes, of course we thought of Colin Davis and all our other departed friends in the final “Départ.” So moving.

 

And so to the major work of the evening, and Elgar’s 2nd Symphony has never enjoyed the popularity of his 1st. One reason is pretty obvious; it doesn’t have a main theme of the sort that opens and closes the 1st.  Also, it doesn’t end triumphantly, and people were expecting that sort of thing from Elgar. No, this is the work of an older man – perhaps even, by now, if not disillusioned, then chastened and far more experienced, and undoubtedly worried by the political situation that would shortly lead to WW1. The second movement is among Elgar’s most heartfelt creations, but throughout this long, important work there are contrasts and conundrums. These sometimes rapid changes of mood are important in a performance; judging the constant ebbing and flowing becomes the crucial task of the conductor. It is the success or failure of this which makes performances stand out. Several, on record, have got it right. One may cite Boult, Andrew Davis, Barbirolli, Handley, and of course Sir Colin Davis, who performed the work memorably with the LSO relatively recently in 2010. Daniel Harding did well tonight – very well. His was a reading with plenty of vitality, but sensitivity too, with tempi generally slower than the composer’s own. This may have had a slightly dislocating effect in the first movement, which I must confess to being my least favourite of the symphony anyway, but elsewhere I found myself much in sympathy with his reading.

 

The slow movement was frequently exquisite, the 3rd romped along brilliantly and the strange, mysterious last movement flowed as it should and the all-important ending was beautifully quiet and uneasy. What a shame some clot in the audience felt it necessary to jump in with applause long, long before Harding had lowered his baton. The silence which Harding obviously sought, and should follow music of this intensity and meaning, was rudely destroyed.

 

I thought the LSO played magnificently. We all know this is a splendid orchestra with fine principals, but nevertheless performances can vary from excellent to stunning. Tonight it was stunning. They love playing for Harding, as well they should.

 

Christopher Gunning

 

 

 

 

August 21, 2013 |

The RPO impresses with superb performances of Stravinsky, Penderecki, Debussy and Ravel

PROM 44, 15h August 2013, Royal Albert Hall, London

Stravinsky, Penderecki, Debussy, Ravel, Arto Noras, cello, Leonard Elschenbroich, cello, Daniel Muller-Schott, cello, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Charles Dutoit, conductor.

Stravinski: Fireworks (1908, revised 1909)
Krzysztof Penderecki: Concerto Grosso (2000-2001)
Debussy:  La Mer (1903-5)

Ravel:  Daphnis et Chloé (1909-12) Suite no. 2.

The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra plays but one Prom every year, and this time it was their artistic director and principal conductor who led the proceedings. Charles Dutoit’s association with the orchestra goes back some fifty years. He is much loved by the players and one could expect extra special results; as you will see, we were not disappointed.

Stravinsky’s early work was much influenced by his teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov and in 1908, when the younger composer finished the first score of “Fireworks” he sent it to his master for approval. However, it was returned unopened because Rimsky-Korsakov had died. I am sure he would have approved of it, with its dazzling orchestration and abundant wit, and nowadays its interest is in its foretastes of “The Firebird,” “ Petrouchka,” and “Le Chant du Rossignol” among other significant early works. If the performance tonight felt a little hesitant at first it soon gathered momentum during its brief four minutes, and by the end we had glimpses of the virtuosity this orchestra is certainly capable of.

There was now an irritatingly long break in the programme while the violins trooped off and the stage was rearranged to accommodate the three solo cellists featured in the next work.

“Mostly elegiac” was an overheard comment from a member of the audience talking about Penderecki’s “Concerto Grosso.” It’s a long time since the composer was dubbed an enfant terrible of the avant garde with his “Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima.” Penderecki’s style has undergone changes, and frequently embraces tonality; influences as diverse as Bruckner, Shostakovich, Brahms and Liszt have been absorbed, and the result is his own fusion of 19th and 20th Century idioms.

The Concerto Grosso sets the three cellos against a “normal” symphony orchestra, but the composer wisely uses the orchestra, for the most part, rather sparingly. Each of the three soloists has his own opportunities to rise above the orchestral textures, the individual lines being often highly expressive. At the outset, each cellist plays his own solo, and it is only after this that all three play together. A similar process is repeated towards the end. The piece subdivides into six sections played without a break, and it’s not all slow, even if the “mostly elegiac” impression is what one is left with. There are energetic dance-like sections, but there is an inevitability about the way their energy dissipates into thoughtful lyricism once more. Dutoit has championed this work, performing it far and wide, and clearly has the measure of it. Likewise the soloists were all terrific, all three expressing the music with intense passion and commitment.  The sounds are frequently beautiful, but I did feel there could have been a greater variety of texture overall. Nevertheless it seemed a faultless performance.

As chance would have it, I was in Eastbourne a couple of days ago where, ensconced with his pregnant mistress (soon to become his wife) in the Grand Hotel, Debussy completed “La Mer.”  Plenty of sea images were scudding through my mind, therefore, as the RPO feasted on this iconic impressionist masterpiece. Dutoit is never more at home than in this French music; his recordings with the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal quickly became favourites in the 90’s, and are still reckoned to be among the best. Tonight he led the RPO through a performance in which every nuance was savoured, but never at the expense of the narrative flow. Dutoit is particularly alert to the dramatic qualities of the score, with constantly flexible tempi and gorgeously detailed colours. We heard the most superb pianissimos from the strings, sublimely sensitive solos from the woodwind, and bursts of ferocity and majesty when needed from the brass and percussion. I loved the way momentum was built up in the second movement, where one could not help seeing and hearing the waves pounding along and the wind in your face. And, in the third movement, things were as stormy as you could possibly want. There may be other, more measured and refined ways of doing “La Mer” but I defy anyone to bring off a more vivid and altogether salty performance; for me it was almost like hearing the piece for the first time, and I’ll not forget the experience in a hurry.

I  can’t help feeling a trifle short-changed when Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé is performed without the choir. Also, I love much of music in part one of the ballet too, but had to be content with the 2nd Suite tonight, which Ravel himself prepared. Fortunately, Dutoit’s reading had all the same qualities he had brought to “La Mer.” The opening Daybreak scene was beautifully atmospheric with Dutoit emphasising the bird calls perhaps a little more strongly than usual. The long melodies were perfectly judged in the strings, and the whole section had just enough momentum to avoid sentimentality. Glorious!

Moving on, I delighted in John Anderson’s oboe solos, and then it was the turn of Emer McDonough to enchant us with her ravishing flute solo. The final Danse General was taken at a fast lick, but it didn’t feel rushed until, perhaps, the very end. It was superbly exciting, with tremendous rhythmic verve, and all in all, this was a terrific performance, and a fitting end to an unforgettable concert. The members of the RPO had played their socks off; it goes without saying that each department is of virtuoso standard, but what impresses most of all is the way in which the various sections work together to produce wonderfully blended sounds. On this showing, and with this conductor, it must be the match of any orchestra in the world.

Christopher Gunning

 

 

 

 

August 16, 2013 |

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January 30, 2013 |

Christopher’s Guitar Concerto, Clarinet Concerto, and Concertino for Flute and Small Orchestra released on CD

Christopher’s Guitar Concerto, Clarinet Concerto, and Concertino for Flute and Small Orchestra have been released on CD and as downloads by Discovery Music & Vision.

The Guitar Concerto was composed specially for Craig Ogden, the brilliant guitarist whose recordings for Virgin/EMI, Chandos, Nimbus, Hyperion, Sony and Classic FM have received wide acclaim, and whose albums “The Guitarist” and “Summertime” shot to the top of the classical charts in 2010 and 2011. The concerto is subtitled “Requerdos do Mallorca.”

Michael Whight, the principal clarinetist in the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, is the soloist in the Concerto for Clarinet and String Orchestra.

The Concertino for Flute and Small Orchestra was composed for Catherine Handley in 2011 and is influenced by Christopher’s love of the Welsh mountains, valleys and villages, where Catherine lives.

Listen to samples and buy the CD on this website here.

Watch a short video trailer for the CD

 

January 22, 2013 |