Christopher GUNNING (b.1944)

The Film and TV Music
Poirot Variations (1989 – 2010) [8:53]
La Môme Piaf (La Vie en rose) (2007) [6:17]
Under Suspicion (1991) [7:00]
Cold Lazarus (1996) [10:15]
The Rosemary and Thyme Caprice (2003 – 2006) [3:59]
Rebecca (1997) [6:38]
Pollyanna (2003) [6:17]
Firelight (1997) [7:14]
When the Whales Came! (1989) [7:12]
The Hollow (2004) [3:14]
Five Little Pigs (2003} [3:33]
Lighthouse Hill (2004) [4:27]
Nicole Tibbels (soprano), Craig Ogden (guitar), Martin Robertson (saxophone)
BBC Philharmonic Orchestra/Rumon Gamba
rec. 14 July 2009, 4 January, 15, 17 June 2010, Studio 7, BBC New Broadcasting House, Manchester. DDD
CHANDOS CHAN 10625 [75:50]

See also review by Rob Barnett

I was very excited, last year, by the Chandos issue of Gunning’s 3rd and 4th Symphonies (review review) and the news that the company was intending to undertake a series of recordings of Gunning’s works. Here is the second instalment, and most welcome it is.

Music for film has come a long way since Franz Waxman’s seminal score for James Whale’s The Bride of Frankenstein – generally regarded to be the first great score for film – and today there is a good selection of film scores available on CD, ranging from the older masters of the genre to today’s composers. Christopher Gunning has an impressive list of credits to his name, and, possibly more than most, he has conceived much music for television – serials as well as one-off dramas. Both are represented here.

For me the most impressive of these scores is Under Suspicion, which, in the excerpt recorded here, could stand alone as a very exciting, indeed thrilling, tone poem in its own right. As with all the music here, it’s brilliantly conceived and orchestrated - not a note is wasted and there’s plenty of tension and release. This is the symphonic Gunning, and most impressive it is. The music for Dennis Potter’s final television play Cold Lazarus is no less impressive, but here the music makes for a very disturbing listen; Potter was never an easy playwright. Rebecca is a dark story and here Gunning achieves music of a brooding grandeur, almost Sibelian in its starkness.

Despite what I have repeatedly written about the darkness or the thrilling aspects of this music, there is always a rich romantic vein running through each composition. There are some soaring tunes which are truly memorable. I have written about these scores first because, for me, Gunning is a dramatic composer, certainly his symphonic works prove that, and symphonic thought and logic can be found, in abundance, in these scores.

As a welcome contrast, there are two other kinds of music on this CD – lighter works and Poirot. Of the “lighter” pieces, Firelight is a masterpiece of understatement - a simple theme, light orchestration and a feeling of being shut in, away from the madding crowd. But what a tune solitude engenders! When the Whales Came! is a meditation on the sea. and whales, which includes a solo voice and whale sounds, slowed down to create a very eerie effect. The Rosemary and Thyme Caprice is a gentle meditation on the well known folk tune, for guitar and small orchestra. Pollyanna is basically a meditation for flute with piano. It is utterly unaffected and delightful. The love music from Lighthouse Hill is another example of Gunning being able to create an atmosphere with the fewest possible notes and gestures. This could develop into something bigger, as with some of the romantic music in the earlier scores, but he won’t allow that, and that is all to the good. La Môme Piaf (La Vie en rose) is a film about the little Sparrow, Edith Piaf, and this excerpt consists of a most melancholy waltz which strives for attention but which never escapes its loneliness.

Finally to Hercule Poirot, possibly the world’s most famous Belgian. As a good score consists of variations on the main theme, Gunning has joined together several cues from the TV series into a very satisfying whole, with a chase, love music (!) and the famous title music. It makes a very nice suite and an excellent saxophone concerto. The Hollow and Five Little Pigs are two episodes from the Poirot series. The former consists of a richly romantic string theme and the latter a lilting solo violin tune.

As with others in this series, the recording is exemplary, the sound, superb and full, capturing what is, at times, a very large orchestra, but still allowing for intimacy in the smaller works. The performances are first rate. Gamba is such a good conductor, and not just of this repertoire, and can get the best from his players. Soloists Nicole Tibbels, Craig Ogden and Martin Robertson make valuable contributions and, although small in the overall playing time of the music, their presence is most significant.

Poirot says of his secretary, Miss Felicity Lemon, that Anything that she mentioned as worth consideration usually was worth consideration. I can concur that anything Gunning has written is worthy of consideration. My little grey cells tell me that this is a disk not to be missed.

Bob Briggs

My little grey cells tell me that this is a disk not to be missed.