Review: 3rd Symphony, 4th Symphony and Oboe Concerto

This is fabulous stuff. That, really, is all I need to say, but I’ll say it again. This, quite simply, is fabulous stuff.

You want me to say a little more? It really would be my pleasure. It’s a while since I discovered a contemporary composer whose music hit me between the eyes, in the major working parts of my brain and in my heart. This is fabulous stuff indeed. I cannot say it enough. I am so excited by this music.

We all know at least one work by Christopher Gunning. Oh yes we do, I’m talking to you at the back, we really do. He’s the man responsible for the theme for TV’s Poirot, and a host of other music for TV and film such as Death on the Nile, Hands of the Ripper, Under Suspicion, Karaoke and Cold Lazarus (Denis Potter’s last two plays) and so much more, not to mention his four BAFTA and three Ivor Novello Awards, but I really want to talk about the fabulous music on this new disk.

I am very excited by this music for it has everything symphonic music should have – tension, drama, a real sense of purpose, a knowledge of where it is going and, best of all, the composer knows that when he’s said what he has to say, and Gunning has a lot to say, he stops. Unfortunately this latter poses a problem for me for he seems to end too soon but in the long run this is good for it makes me want more.

These two Symphonies are splendid achievements. The 3rd Symphony is dark and brooding for it was written at a time of crisis in the composer’s life – his wife was hospitalized with a seeming incurable medical problem and he was diagnosed with a heart condition. It is natural for a composer to put personal matters into his music and this is what Gunning does here, to try and understand his situation. Five sections played continuously investigate the possibilities thrown up by the opening material. It’s cogently argued and endlessly fascinating. If Roger Wright wants a contemporary British Symphony which could be a real and instant winner at the Proms then this is it. It’s fabulous stuff.

The 4th Symphony celebrates the recovery of both himself and his wife from their medical problems and there is less angst than in the earlier work, as you would expect, but it’s still a closely argued work, never resting in its musical quest to get the most, and the best, out of the material employed. Here there is a more laid back, easy going, at times English countryside, feel to the music which displays more obvious growth, in the developmental sense of the word, the scoring is more transparent and it ends with the most exciting optimistic blaze of orchestral sound.

Between these two works is the delightful Oboe Concerto, written as a Christmas present for his daughter Verity, who plays it here with the most pleasing and attractive tone I’ve heard in some time from an oboist – very carefully controlled vibrato, an unforced tone and seemingly miraculous breath control. This is scored for string orchestra and is outgoing and delicate, a real charm of a piece.

The performances are flawless, both Verity Gunning and the orchestra are superb, the recording is excellent, so clear that you can hear every note, and Gunning’s own notes are succinct and very readable.

The disk claims to be the first in an unfolding series and I can hardly wait for its successor. By the way, did I mention that this is fabulous stuff? This is a must.

Bob Briggs

And another review of the disc – from Rob Barnett

I know some of Gunning’s work from his Saxophone Concerto on ASV (White Line CD WHL2138 (2002)) and also from several of his film scores. Chris Fifield reviewed an Albany disc of his First Symphony a couple of years ago. I also recall reviews of his symphonic work for brass band: Yorkshire Glory. I was pleased and intrigued to see this CD of his seriously intended orchestral music.

He was born in Cheltenham and has been a pupil of Rubbra, Richard Rodney Bennett, James Gibb – whose piano recordings have been reissued on Lyrita recently – and Brian Trowell. In addition to the works here he has a string quartet and concertos for clarinet and for piano to his name. His writing for the screen includes a score for Firelight. There’s more to see at his website. His concert music is predominantly tonal but with the freedom to adopt dissonance to suit mood and trajectory.

While the two symphonies here have a single movement apiece each is helpfully tracked into five segments. The Third emanates from a tortured time in the composer’s life. This shows in the occlusion of expression: the shadows, hesitation, even desolation that characterises much of the music. There is a moment of transitory triumph at 4:27 in the first track but the downward tug into fear is dominant. It is typical of this composer that his writing is diaphanous and this work is no exception. In the first section the writing for strings melds with the resonance of bells. This active filigree is also in play in the final pages which offer impudence but little optimism and yet more disillusion. If this symphony carries a doom-laden burden then the Fourth Symphony, written after recovery from serious illness by Gunning and his wife, is more triumphant. Adversity conquered seems to be the message. A glorious fanfaring dialogue surmounts the first section at 4:12 and in doing so reminds us of Copland and Alwyn. It returns in echoing triumph in the final episode.

The Oboe Concerto is here played most skilfully and with great sensitivity by the composer’s daughter. This is her first entry as soloist into the world of recording. The Concerto is intended to reflect Verity’s character: “thoughtful and sometimes quirky”. It’s certainly contemplative, pensive and interspersed with flurries of quirky activity. Its perkily active final movement reminded me of the dancing finale of Malcolm Arnold’s Oboe Concerto. The composer speaks of a middle eastern tinge to the music but I must say it did not register with me.

The other two symphonies should follow from Chandos in the fullness of time – but how long? Soon I hope.

These substantial works will repay closer attention. For all that they are principally tonal their rewards are yielded up only after repeat listening. Instantly gripping melodic ideas are not on offer here though the writing does beckon the listener in.

Rob Barnett

Read more here.

November 3, 2011 |