Not long ago I reviewed
a delightful disc of three concertos by Christopher Gunning, also issued by the Discovery label. I suppose I should begin this review with a similar declaration of interest in that Mr Gunning is a fellow reviewer of concerts for MusicWeb International Seen and Heard, though he and I have never met.
Inspired by the enthusiastic reviews
of Bob Briggs and Rob Barnett I invested some time ago in the Chandos disc of Gunning’s Third and Fourth symphonies. It may be an obvious point to make but the Fifth Symphony is closer to those compositions than to the concertos which, for the most part, wear a lighter countenance. The symphonies are serious in disposition but the Fifth, at nearly 52 minutes in length, is conceived on a much bigger canvass than either of the two previous symphonies: the Third (2005) plays for 22:54 and the Fourth (2007) for just a minute longer. Both of these symphonies are cast in a single movement whereas the Fifth has four separate movements.
The Fifth Symphony is an ambitious score. In his notes the composer says it’s for a “large orchestra”. I’ve been unable to establish exactly what forces are required but, judging by one of the session photos in the booklet, I think the scoring includes triple woodwind, full brass and horns, strings, harp, timpani and a substantial percussion section, which probably comprises three players. I should say straightaway that the music sounds to me to be scored with great skill. The textures are often powerful, though never overloaded; the woodwind writing is consistently interesting, as is the use of the brass and horns; while the percussion is used imaginatively to colour the music and to add rhythmic impetus. The ear is regularly stimulated by inventive, though never outlandish, orchestral sonorities. Here, in short, is a composer who really knows how to orchestrate. From time to time, in discussing the music, I shall probably mention composers whose music seemed to me, perhaps erroneously, to find an echo in what I hear in Gunning’s score. However, any such mentions will be for guidance only: like any good composer Christopher Gunning will have absorbed influences from the past but his music speaks for itself and in its own voice.
The symphony is dedicated to the composer’s sister who became ill and died while he was working on the score. However, don’t expect that, as a result, the symphony is elegiac in tone. In fact, in Gunning’s own words: “In some respects it can be seen as a commentary on a life - not specifically hers [his sister’s] or anyone else’s but during its four movements it moves through several phases which correspond loosely to one’s journey from birth to death.”
At the start of the first movement we hear a good deal of woodwind figuration. Gunning refers to this as ‘an “awakening” sequence.’ This figuration is important, not least because it will be heard again at the end, nearly fifty minutes later. The music that follows is often dramatic in tone and gesture but there are calmer episodes also. At times I was put in mind of the orchestral writing of Alwyn or Arnold and I also sense Sibelius as a beneficial influence. The influences - real or imagined - are not so important; what is
important is that the music caught my attention from the outset and retained it. The slow movement is placed second and it’s much more tranquil than its predecessor, as you might expect from a movement in which the composer tells us he was reflecting on childhood, specifically his own and the early years of his four daughters. There are important solo passages for oboe, clarinet and, especially, for flute. Among passages that particularly caught my ear was the section between 2:42 and 3:40 where we hear some deep washes of orchestral sound that put me in mind of Bax or late Vaughan Williams. That’s just one of many examples of imaginative scoring here and in the other three movements. A little later in the same movement (from 4:55 onwards) there are some episodes in which high tuned percussion instruments and harp are to the fore. The movement rises to a noble climax (7:12-8:57) which seems to suggest Bax and Sibelius.
The third movement is fast and, sometimes, furious. It’s full of energy and bustle. There’s great dynamism in the music - and in the performance. Eventually the music becomes, in the composer’s words, “stormy or warlike”. This is violent stuff in which brass and percussion are prominent. It ends in an almighty crash (around 8:00), after which the music “disintegrates.” The finale, at 17:03, is easily the longest movement. We hear again the “awakening” material or variants thereof and that music informs the first three minutes or so, gradually evolving into an extended, undulating cor anglais solo. . After an extended slow theme heard on strings the music gradually grows in intensity and Gunning’s scoring becomes fuller and richer - the long melodic lines seem to me to be constantly chivvied along by figuration derived from the awakening material. From about 11:47, ushered in by chiming bells, the music becomes rather more tranquil though even now one senses a restless spirit. Eventually, the symphony comes pretty much full circle as we hear the awakening material again on the woodwind - “dust to dust..”, says the composer. The work ends with a brass chord which struck me as both emphatic and slightly enigmatic.
In the booklet Christopher Gunning pays tribute to the contribution of the RPO and I’m not surprised: the playing is committed and excellent. With the composer on the rostrum we must surely regard the performance as definitive. It’s captured in excellent sound.
The other work on the disc is Gunning’s String Quartet No 1. I couldn’t find any subsequent quartets listed on the composer’s website
but the title of the work suggests it may not be unique in his output. It was written in 1999 and revised in 2006. I have to confess that I feel less able to judge this four-movement work because chamber music is not a particular interest of mine: for one thing I miss the range of colour that can be found in an orchestral score.
The quartet is constructed around a three-note sequence, C-G-D, though Gunning is sufficiently skilful that one is rarely aware of this structural device: it’s certainly not a straitjacket. The first movement, Gunning says, is an “arch-shaped passacaglia”. Here a great deal of invention flows from spare beginnings and the cello usually provides the anchor in the shape of the three-note figure. This is followed by an “up-tempo, semi-fugal scherzo”. The music in this movement is lithe and vital. It’s only shortly before the end of the movement that, on two or three occasions, the ceaseless fast discourse between the instruments is interrupted - and then only briefly - by short, sustained passages. Otherwise, momentum is the order of the day.
The slow movement offers us a chance to get back our breath after the scherzo. This, the shortest movement, offers reflective, pensive music. Gunning closes his quartet with an “enthusiastic rondo”. In the first movement the three-note motif underpinned the passacaglia; here it provides an ostinato foundation. The ostinato injects dynamism and propulsion into the music, acting as an excellent foil for the sustained upper lines in the musical texture. This finale is thrusting and energetic. As in the symphony, Christopher Gunning benefits from having excellent and committed musicians to perform his music: the members of the Juno Quartet are splendid advocates for a work which one suspects they learned specially for this recording.
I doubt there will be many opportunities to hear either of these impressive works in the concert hall, more’s the pity. Therefore, this disc is particularly important in giving us the opportunity to hear them. I’m particularly impressed by the symphony but I’m sure that collectors who are more attuned to chamber music than I am will find Gunning’s essay in this form just as rewarding. Christopher Gunning now has seven symphonies to his credit. Having heard three of them I should like to experience the others.