The chances are that if you have not heard of Chris Gunning you
may, anyway, have encountered his music. If you have seen that
delightful detective series ‘Poirot’ starring David
Suchet then you have come across the signature tune and incidental
music. You could even have encountered some of Gunning’s
many award-winning film scores such as ‘Wild Africa’ and ‘When
the Whales came’.
When I asked myself whose music it reminded me of whilst listening
to the Third Symphony I thought of Alwyn who was also a successful
scorer of films, and more symphonically I thought of David Matthews
although he is more serious in intent.
It’s probably advisable to start with the opening work
- the five-movements-in-one Third Symphony. The booklet notes
have been written succinctly by the composer. He gives us the
background. The work was written at a time of personal crises
both for the composer and for his wife who were both diagnosed
with serious illnesses. The work is not always cataclysmic or
dark. It does however have a powerful opening movement and a
scherzo of skittish colour fascinatingly orchestrated. The Symphony
beavers away obsessively at its opening discordant harmonies.
The influence of one of Gunning’s earliest teachers, Edmund
Rubbra, can be detected here, not in the sound of the music but
in the way that he is incredibly economical with his material.
These chords run through the entire work right to the final bars.
The Oboe Concerto is a pleasing if not momentous ‘piéce
written as a birthday present for
his daughter Verity. She plays it here under the baton of her
father. The middle movement is a moving elegy written on the day
of the death of Yasser Arafat in November 2004. The first movement
is English pastoral in the best tradition. I heard it for the
first time whilst driving around the remote lanes of North Northumberland
for which it seemed a perfect backdrop. The finale strikes me
as a little long for its material but, if regarded as a piece
of light music, then the work becomes most satisfying. It should
be taken up by young musicians. Verity Gunning has a beautiful
and elegant tonal quality which her father exploits to its full
But it’s the Fourth Symphony I will return to most often
and already have done. It is also in five continuous sections
- separately tracked - and is based on the opening material.
It has a strong sense of organic growth especially in its central
section, another Rubbran influence I feel. It was written at
a time when the major health troubles of 2005 where behind him
and his wife. Gunning wanted to write a work which could “express
a sense of triumph over adversity”. He describes the closing,
exciting fanfares as bringing “matters to a positive close”.
I would not disagree with that except to say that the harmonies
remain dissonant and the struggle is not easily overcome. There
are sections at the beginning and end when certain kinds of heroic
film score come to mind; never mind, this is also true symphonic
writing. The performance of this work, as with all three under
the composer’s steady baton, seems to be exemplary, with
complete commitment from the RPO especially the hardworking brass
section. One assumes that what one hears is what Gunning exactly
wanted. The recording is vivid and beautifully balanced. I did
wonder however whether these works have actually received their
first live performances as Gunning’s notes give no details.
I have enjoyed these works and suggest that you try them yourself.
However they are not as inspired to, my way of thinking, as the
Poirot signature tune which will remain immortal.
see also reviews by Bob Briggs and Rob Barnett