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Christopher GUNNING (b. 1944)
Symphony No. 2 (2003, revised 2018) [29:06]
Symphony No. 10 (2016) [21:44]
Symphony No. 12 (2018) [27:15]
BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Kenneth Woods
rec. live, 4-6 April 2019, Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, Wales

Symphony No. 2 opens with a rhythmic pizzicato figure in the lower strings over which the winds, notably the bass clarinet, weave the beginnings of a number of themes. There is a darkness about both the scoring and the thematic nature of this music that is only alleviated later in the movement when the piccolo’s staccato intervention introduces a brighter mood. The movement’s climax is at once powerful and convincing. The slow movement is perhaps more difficult to take in at first hearing. Unison strings provide a hesitant, uncertain start, and the emotional temperature is lower. At about 6:30 appears a richly scored lyrical passage that again leads to a strong climax. The finale is rapid and exciting, beginning with short, sprightly phrases from the winds that alternate with explosions in the rest of the orchestra. The side-drum emerges as an important character in this drama, though the music is not really martial in atmosphere. The symphony ends with a dramatic return to the very opening. Gunning, writing in the booklet, describes this moment as ‘forceful or even triumphant’. Malcolm Arnold’s music frequently features similar gestures, though generally, I think, presented rather more skilfully than Gunning does here with a series of fortissimo chords. This is the only lapse of any kind to strike this listener throughout the work. Robert Matthew-Walker is quoted in the booklet as observing that Gunning’s music is ‘not immediately “populist” in the manner of Malcolm Arnold’, and this is certainly true. Arnold’s music is, for the most part, more immediately appealing, where Gunning’s is more elusive. None the less, I hear similarities of manner and method. In any event, not all recently-composed symphonies have the coherence and conviction of this one. It will amply repay the attention of any music lover.

The Tenth Symphony employs a less challenging musical language than the Second. The listener will hear far more major and minor chords, and more conventional harmonic progressions. The work opens with a motif on unison strings that is to become of great importance later; toward the end of the work, when played by the brass, it acquires almost Wagnerian weight and import. Gunning makes two references to Sibelius in his booklet note, an important indicator of his own symphonic thinking. The Tenth is a one-movement work lasting a little over twenty-one minutes, and Gunning cites Sibelius’s ‘mighty’ Seventh as a precursor. Anyone who has tried to write music will appreciate that twenty-one minutes of uninterrupted music requires a sure hand in respect of form and narrative drive. It is interesting that Gunning also insists that narrative is a crucial part of his philosophy. ‘I have always looked on my symphonies as novels,’ he writes, ‘with characters in the form of themes or motifs which return or develop.’ Careful listening reveals many of the motifs to which he refers, though the overall form of the work is less clear-cut than the beautiful simplicity of Sibelius’s Seventh. There are certainly a few Sibelian techniques. The rapid string figure that introduces a change of tempo at about 5:30 is certainly one of them, though the rapid wind and harp scales that overlay long held chords in the beautiful slower section that follows sound very different from anything you would expect from the Finnish composer. The work’s coda is announced by a silence, which I think a pity, rather as I did at a similar point in the Second Symphony. But this is to nit-pick, because this is, once again, a work whose starting point is clear and which moves towards its close with real and undeniable logic and near-inevitability. If you add on to that Gunning’s ability to write rapid music, not something given to all recent composers, then this work is another winner.

On to the Twelfth Symphony which, as the composer indicates, is more tonal still than the Tenth, ‘even melodic’, he writes, with ‘textures [that] are mostly clear and uncomplicated.’ The first movement opens in hesitant fashion, but the music soon becomes extremely melodic and lyrical. This is perhaps the moment to salute the superb wind principals of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, as they have much to do in this passage and indeed throughout these works. Motor rhythms in the strings create an irresistible driving force that leads to the movement’s climax before subsiding into an atmosphere similar to the opening. The second movement ‘was inspired by the funeral of a friend.’ Bells at the beginning create an elegiac atmosphere, but this soon dissipates into what can perhaps be heard as a noble celebration of the deceased person’s life. A faster middle section leads to a more intense passage; a chain of descending sevenths that has also featured in the first movement achieve a particular significance here. Do they enshrine the friend in some way? Bells return again at the end, and though the close is more sombre it is not without hope.

The composer himself produced this disc. He thanks his engineers, Mike Hatch and Mike Cox, as he also does the orchestra and the conductor, Kenneth Woods. Well he might, we can say, in every case. The sound is superb, vivid, close and clear. This is music that is clearly gratifying to play, and the orchestra does so with skill, conviction and evident enjoyment. Gunning must have been thrilled.

These are three substantial symphonies that are thoroughly enjoyable and satisfying to listen to. Christopher Gunning has written a lot of music for film and television. Does this sound like film music? No, it doesn’t, not really. But it is music that is full of drama and incident, and one could easily imagine certain passages being used to illustrate events on screen. If ever this were ever to be the case, it would be film music of the utmost class.

William Hedley

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