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Brunning guitar PFCD184
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John Brunning (b. 1954)
Magna Carta - The Complete Works for Guitar
Concerto Magna Carta (2015)
Five Romances
Xuefei Yang (guitar), Johannes Moses (cello), Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Clark Rundell
rec. 2021/2022, Liverpool Philharmonic Hall, Tilyard, London, UK

One of the key challenges faced by Andrés Segovia, when he commenced his concert career in the early part of the 20th century, was the dearth of quality repertoire. He championed the creation of new works by composers of repute, and during an interview with film maker Christopher Nupen, he was asked about this endeavour. Segovia responded as follows: ‘It is impossible to compose for the guitar if you don’t play it, and play it well’. Exactly how composers of new works for guitar, such as Joaquin Rodrigo, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Manuel Ponce and Manuel de Falla, fitted into Segovia’s purview is open to conjecture. However, in consideration of this review disc, Segovia may have espoused a principle with merit.

John Brunning, born in Essex, UK, is a radio presenter, musician and compere. With respect to the guitar he is autodidactic, and possessing eclectic and catholic tastes employed his instrumental skills in the rock band Mungo Jerry and Boy Bastin. His long love of composition has remained constant, nowadays composing mainly in the classical idiom; in his view, music and melody will always be indivisible.

Xuefei Yang was born in Beijing in 1970. Her father chose her name from a 2000-year-old Chinese poem that describes snow falling densely, and expresses a sentimental feeling of a person returning home. She sometimes feels that her father passed on to her his genes of sentimentality. She began study of guitar at age 7 and at 10 commenced studies with Chen Zhi. She was the first ever to obtain a BA degree in guitar from the Central Conservatoire of Music. She studied in the UK at the Royal Academy of Music under a full scholarship from the ABRSM. She views herself more as an artist rather than a guitarist, being privileged to explore and appreciate different cultures and share them with global audiences through her guitar playing.

The complete opus of John Brunning for the guitar, composed between 2007 and 2019, is presented on this recording. Brunning attempted to avoid the strong Spanish tradition of the classical guitar and feels that there is something essentially English about the music. At the heart of the music is a concerto for guitar and orchestra, Magna Carta written for Yang, and premiered on this occasion by her, with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Clark Rundell. The concerto is so named because it was completed in 2015, 800 years after the signing of that document. In addition to the original three movements, Brunning invited Yang to compose a cadenza for the work. She structured it around well-known folk tunes celebrating music from the British Isles, dovetailed with melodies from each movement. One of the folk tunes, ‘Sumer is Icumen,’ dates back to the time of the Magna Carta. Yang’s affinity for the music may also be heightened by the fact that she lives near the river Thames, the same river where the signing of the Magna Carta took place at Runnymede, in 1215.

It would be challenging to imagine any guitar aficionado not enthusiastically embracing the beauty of the Magna Carta concerto. It is delightfully melodious, idiomatic, creatively orchestrated and, as Branning designed, deviant to the typical Spanish approach hitherto encountered in much music for the guitar. It is destined to become a favourite among both guitarists and listeners.

The genesis of the Five Romances is interesting. Originally only the first and fourth were thought as pieces for the guitar; the second and fifth were conceived as motets, and the third for strings. Since Brunning writes all his music on the guitar, it was a natural process to take this all back to the original, with the addition of string arrangements. Lacrimosa was conceived some time ago as a solo guitar piece. Only recently was it adopted as music scored for guitar and cello. Brunning describes the music as ‘an intensely emotional conversation between the two instruments’, on this occasion probably augmented by the friendship between the two musicians.

Generally speaking Brunning’s music for guitar does have the English string flavour that he proposes. It reflects a strong understanding of the guitar polyphonically. This often evades composers who do not play the instrument, with resultant dominance of single note passages. Lacrimosa (weeping/tearful) for guitar and cello is aptly described by Brunning as a deeply emotional conversation between the two instruments. It is redolent of the conversation between the guitar and cor anglais in the slow movement of the Concierto de Aranjuez; this is purported to be symbolic of the conversation between Deity and Rodrigo, apropos his recent loss of an infant son.

It is easy to understand Yang’s affinity for Brunning’s music generally, and Lacrimosa specifically, given her conjecture regarding having inherited genes of sentimentality. As usual, the playing of Yang is superior: precise, with a strong tone and conspicuous musicianship. On this occasion she plays a Greg Smallman & Sons guitar (2003); a big, and powerful -sounding instrument that is ideal in orchestral situations.

Zane Turner

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