Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Recorded 3 & 4 February 2014 in Watford Town Hall, Hertfordshire, England
CD No: DISCOVERY DMV 112 Duration: 63 minutes Reviewed: July 2014
Christopher Gunning conducts his Sixth & Seventh Symphonies and Night Voyage [Discovery]
Reviewed by Robert Matthew-Walker
I recently reviewed in these columns Vladimir Ashkenazy’s release of piano music by Howard Blake, making the point that a composer who has had commercial success often finds his concert music not treated as it deserves. Much the same can be said of the music of Christopher Gunning (born in Cheltenham in 1944) – a pupil of Edmund Rubbra and Richard Rodney Bennett – who has enjoyed no little success in providing music for television programmes and advertisements. That has been bread-and-butter work for both Blake and Gunning, and it does not require too great a leap of imagination to realise that being able to provide ‘music for all occasions’ was a concept natural to Bach, Haydn or Mozart – or even Beethoven at times. After all, writing music, any music, is what composers ought to be able to do.
Perhaps it’s a sign of present-day ‘art’ music that compositions by greatly-admired (in the media) figures, who have never ventured into the commercial world, are taken more seriously by those who are still permitted to write about classical music in our national press, whereas composers who work in a language which reaches a wider audience appear to be considered less important. We might also parenthetically consider, in comparison, the extraordinary amount of newsprint in our once universally-admired ‘quality press’ that is given over to rock and pop music, so that, in regard to both, one might offer a quote from the opening of Constant Lambert’s 1934 book Music Ho!:
“Revolutionaries themselves are the last people to realize when, through force of time and circumstance, they have gradually become conservatives. It is scarcely to be wondered at if the public is very nearly as slow in the uptake.”
So the “revolutionaries” of old who have become the “conservatives” of today may still be peddling ideas that filled the reports of ‘Our Music Critic’ half a century and more ago, and the public – steered by a collection of Arts Councils that regularly withdraw grants from genuinely good causes and hand the money over to ever-more ephemeral undertakings – affectionately applauds those composers who, by a combination of luck and a National Health Service which has enabled them to reach Grand Old Ages, manage to make it to the concert hall where their music is performed as a birthday treat, even if that music does not invariably induce the same feelings of knowing understanding as perhaps the passage of time since it first appeared ought to have engendered.
Composers in the UK – such as Rubbra and, on occasion, Richard Rodney Bennett or the domiciled Malcolm Williamson – who followed their own compositional stars, may have reached a certain level of public acceptance which has tended to disappear since their deaths, yet what of those composers who, perfectly well educated musically, and not merely in terms of theory but in practical performance, who never had the support of an Arts Council grant or a publisher’s retainer, yet who were able to earn a living by providing music that commerce of a more direct kind demanded and to which the public responded?
Some give up. Some emigrate or move elsewhere, but some continue to write music they have always wanted to write despite critical indifference, and that is a pretty strong indication of a genuine composer – a creative artist who has to create. Such is Christopher Gunning, who, this coming August, will be 70 years old, and who has now composed seven symphonies and a clutch of concertos and chamber works. This release of his two latest symphonies reveals him to be – as on earlier issues – a genuine composer, concerned with developing in large-scale forms the ideas which have come to him.
The result in this instance is a deeply-impressive pair of works, both being big single-movement structures. In the Sixth Symphony, Gunning is concerned essentially with a five-note figure that is to provide the material for the entire work. In terms of musical language, Gunning may be entirely his own man, but one cannot help but feel influences from Britten, Sibelius and Hindemith, yet these are fleeting allusions – in much the same way as one can trace influences from Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky and Reger in each of those three masters. One mentions these names as pointers to listeners who have not encountered Gunning’s music, Not for him earlier or prevailing ‘fashions’ or thoughtless minimalism, but a genuine commitment to his self-imposed task in hand. Those who are attracted to the English symphonism of Rubbra or Robert Simpson, or of current practitioners such as David Matthews or Matthew Taylor, will find a kindred spirit in Christopher Gunning’s work.
The performances appear to be first-class in every respect: one can sense that the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra is playing with genuine concentration and commitment: clearly, Gunning is more than a competent conductor of his own work, and the recording quality is equally excellent.
The Seventh Symphony is an even finer work than the Sixth, although its opening pages struck me as being a risky undertaking for the composer in that the material is not so clearly organic in its flow, but the attentive listener will find their attention held by Gunning’s imaginative juxtaposition of that varied and unexpected material. He follows the relatively brief opening with an extended section of very slow-moving music, from which the emergence of a rhythmic figure – such as pervaded the Sixth Symphony – gradually generates a welcome contrast of pace and texture.
Repeated hearings of the opening paragraph reveal the extent of the composer’s creative imagination in divining the full potential of his initial ideas. As the work progresses, Gunning’s control of pulse is particularly impressive – wholly organic and germane to the musical argument as the gradual unearthing of a tonal basis approaches. The Symphony may appear to be reaching the heart of the argument: but this is a genuine faux-bourdon, for Gunning has much more to extract from his material as the music now expands freely, exploring where it will go, yet this is not an ‘anything goes’ attitude for he is too good a composer not to be able to realise the potential of his ideas through a large orchestral palette and a long-breathed (almost 28 minutes) structure.
The gradual ascent to the bright key of A major is superbly controlled and its ultimate arrival is a genuinely thrilling moment. But Gunning has more to give us: the music now expands in a glorious stretch of power before it fades from our perception, as, finally gathering his forces, Gunning leaves us with a solemn coda of great nobility and sense of achievement.
Night Voyage is a much shorter tone poem, 12 minutes or so; it inhabits, as one might expect, a similar textural approach, faintly Impressionistic, but always underpinned by a genuine sense of inner tonal (rather than harmonic) basis. It is brilliantly and masterly orchestrated, so that any young composer could learn a lot from this work. It is direct in expression, but never simple: the wonderfully imaginative extended closing pages in particular bring the work to a quiet and solemn end.
Throughout these three scores, Gunning handles his orchestra with complete assurance. This music demands wide dissemination amongst intelligent and civilised music-lovers. These works are by no means ephemeral statements with catchy titles such as we tend to encounter rather too often these days from those who, their reputations established (if somewhat sporadically), tend to churn out the same old stuff in response to unimaginative commissioning bodies anxious to be thought up-to-date. This is serious music for serious music-lovers, and it is thoroughly recommended.