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Christopher GUNNING (b.1944)
Violin Concerto (2012) [33:03]
Cello Concerto (2013) [29:31]
Birdflight [12:20]
Harriet Mackenzie (violin)
Richard Harwood (cello)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Christopher Gunning
rec. 28-29 Sept 2015, Henry Wood Hall, London.

Christopher Gunning recordings have been featured on this site since its early days - well, 2002 anyway (review). You can trace this composer's achievement here: CDs of symphonies 1 (with piano concerto - review), 3/4 (review ~ review), 5 (review), 6/7 (review) and the Symphony "Yorkshire Glory" (review). As for his concertos, a selection of these can be heard on another Discovery CD (review). He made his way for many years through writing music for cinema and Chandos have a splendid collection drawn from that genre (review ~ review).

The breathy airborne singing of the summer-fragrant Violin Concerto asserts itself within seconds. It's sweetly lyrical and dreams contentedly; lovely concentrated playing from Harriet Mackenzie from whom we must hear more. Any description (especially mine) will be ham-fisted but the composer's sound-world in this concerto marries and synthesises 1910s Vaughan Williams and 1930s Walton. The concerto is dedicated to the composer's great friend, the flautist Catherine Handley, "lover of all things Welsh". As the composer explains the Concerto was written following a 2012 climb of "the beautiful Sugarloaf Mountain near Abergavenny." An energetic finale is sparklingly exhilarating, reminiscent of the equivalent movement in the Barber violin concerto except that Gunning here includes searchingly lyrical episodes harking back to the first movement.

The Cello Concerto follows. It is in three movements, each with a title: Waltz Memories, Racing and Lament with Variations. Soulful introspection is the order of the day in the first movement which was written after a visit to a care home: "The residents sat in a semicircle around the room, mostly half asleep. Then some musicians arrived and after a while the residents sprang to life and danced, just like they had done 40 years ago. It was astonishing to witness the power of music!" There's quite a bit of torpor in this music. Speed and adrenaline picks up for the flickering energy of the second movement, rather like the finales of the Cello Concertos by Bax and Moeran. Lament with Variations returns to the first movement's unhurried downbeat. Its atmospheric writing could be cut with a knife and is most emotively put across by Richard Harwood. That slower inward aspect reminded me of the Walton Concerto. The work also has a virtuosic aspect but the last few pages return to a pensive style albeit Gunning gives us a most satisfying finale. Ending things in a rounded and telling way can be a struggle but Gunning had it to a tee here.

We are not given a date for Birdflight. Gunning tells us it is "a kind of tone poem". A subdued night scene gradually evaporates with slowly built bird-song crescendo. The suggestion of ecstatic flight (4:03) is disturbed by the presence of a raptor. This black cloud fades and we are left with "the sheer pleasure of flying". Once again Gunning gives us a poignantly lyrical work with cinematic presence.

The recording of all three works has been handled in an exemplary way by Mike Hatch.

Fortunate indeed is the composer who can bring together all the people and elements to present his music to the world in this way.

Rob Barnett



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