Christopher GUNNING (b. 1944)
Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra (2010) [26:35]
Concerto for Clarinet and String Orchestra (2005) [18:42]
Concertino for Flute and Small Orchestra (2010)* [21:40]
Craig Ogden (guitar); Michael Whight (clarinet); Catherine Handley (flute)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Christopher Gunning.
rec. 14-15 May 2012, Abbey Road Studios; *9 June 2011, Air Lyndhurst Studios.
DISCOVERY MUSIC & VISION DMV104 [67:20]
Christopher Gunning is a highly experienced composer, a pupil of Edmund Rubbra and the late Sir Richard Rodney Bennett. His output includes seven symphonies and a number of concertos as well as a good deal of music for TV and films. Chandos have recorded his Third and Fourth Symphonies - a most rewarding disc (review) - and a selection of his TV and film music (review) while his First Symphony can be found on Albany (review). We learn from the booklet that the Discovery label plans to issue a recording of his Fifth Symphony. He has also contributed concert reviews to MusicWeb International Seen and Heard, though his busy schedule of composing and conducting has recently obliged him to take a temporary break from his reviewing activities.
Two of the three concertos recorded here, those for flute and guitar, were composed for the artists who play them in these première recordings. In his notes the composer relates that he first met Catherine Handley in 1989 when her then-husband, Vernon Handley, was recording Gunning’s Yorkshire Glory, a symphonic portrait of Yorkshire. As a Yorkshireman myself, I’m sorry - and slightly embarrassed - that this disc has so far eluded me. In 1989 Gunning wasn’t aware that Catherine Handley is a flautist and a fine musician in her own right so the Concertino didn’t materialise for many years. It was well worth the wait.
The work is cast, like its companion pieces on this disc, in three movements. The first is light-hearted, as Gunning says, The music is inventive and enjoyable and the flute’s innate agility is well exploited. Though the pace relaxes somewhat in mid-movement most of the music is lively and carefree. The writing for the orchestra is skilful in that the band makes a strong contribution without in any sense overpowering the soloist - this is a characteristic of all three concertos. The central movement is marked ‘Slow and thoughtful’ and in it the composer says he wanted to convey the “timelessness and stillness” of the Welsh mountains. This movement features some beautiful, soulful writing for the solo instrument. Gunning uses the term “pure unadulterated fun” of his finale. It’s a delightful creation - something of a caprice - and by the sounds of it the orchestra joins in the fun with the soloist.
The Clarinet Concerto is the earliest of the three works and with it Christopher Gunning joins the ranks of the composers who have found a solo clarinet and string orchestra to be an ideal combination. The first movement exploits the clarinet’s ability and propensity to sing. The music is not only lively and attractive but also fluent. The middle movement is marked ‘Very slow’. There’s mellow melancholy, especially in the solo part. In the centre of the movement (3:55 - around 4:20) the tone becomes more impassioned before a reversion to the ruminative style of the opening. The finale is spirited and lively. Sometimes the rhythms have a jazzy inflection. There’s a slightly pensive central episode but for the most part the music is puckish.
Amongst three most attractive works the one that impressed me the most - albeit by a short head - is the Guitar Concerto. It bears the title Requerdos do Mallorca and, as the composer says, a holiday atmosphere pervades the outer movements, though, despite the title, don’t go looking for lots of faux-Spanish effects in the music. The first movement is an absolute charmer, not least on account of its light, airy textures. The writing for the solo instrument is consistently attractive and though Gunning has restrained his orchestral palette in deference to the need to balance the gentle sound of the guitar the scoring is still colourful and always full of interest. The composer describes the slow movement as “a kind of slow aria”. The music is mainly very beautiful and restful though things become a bit more animated for a few moments in the middle of the movement, just before the cadenza. Woodwind solos are a prominent feature of the introduction to the finale. Here the music sounds to be fairly moderate in tempo before the soloist initiates a livelier speed. There are allusions to the instrument’s Spanish roots in this movement but this is not overdone. This most engaging finale rounds off a highly entertaining concerto in fine style.
I’ve focused on the music since I imagine it will be new to most readers. Let me make amends for my neglect of the performers themselves by saying firstly that all three soloists are first class. Obviously, I don’t know the pieces but at every turn the playing sounds assured and highly polished. Above all, each of the soloists sounds to be having fun and relishing the inventive music they’ve been given to play. They are supported by sparkling playing from the RPO and with the composer on the podium it can be safely assumed that the performances are completely authoritative. The recorded sound is excellent throughout and the documentation is very good too.
This disc is a delight from start to finish. On the evidence of the Third and Fourth Symphonies I’d say that these three impeccably crafted and highly enjoyable concertos represent the less intense side of Christopher Gunning’s art but that statement is not meant in any way to diminish them. This is, above all, music to entertain. I think it’s not without significance that Gunning is a highly successful film and TV composer. If you write music for those media you have to have, amongst other things, the knack of getting the attention of your audience quickly and retaining it. That’s just what these three works achieve. This disc could fairly be described as music for pleasure.
Three impeccably crafted and highly enjoyable concertos: music for pleasure.
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