Gunning: Symphonies Nos. 2, 10 & 12 (CD review)

Kenneth Woods, BBC National Orchestra of Wales. Signum Classics SIGCD593.

Maestro Kenneth Woods seems determined to champion every lesser-known composer in Europe, which in the case of English composer Christopher Gunning (b. 1944) is not quite true because the man has been around for as long as I have, has over twelve albums and twelve symphonies to his credit, and wrote the music for numerous television shows, most prominently for Rosemary and Thyme and Agatha Christie's Poirot. But, still, Gunning's name is probably not as familiar to most people as, say, Bach, Beethoven, or Mozart. Give him time.

From his Wikipedia entry, here's a brief bio for Mr. Gunning: He's "an English composer of concert works and music for films and television. Gunning was born in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire. He studied at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama where his tutors included Edmund Rubbra and Richard Rodney Bennett.

Gunning's film and TV compositions have received many awards, including the 2007 BAFTA Award for Best Film Music for La Vie en Rose, as well as three additional awards for Agatha Christie's Poirot, Middlemarch, and Porterhouse Blue. He also has won three Ivor Novello Awards, for the TV miniseries Rebecca, and the film scores for Under Suspicion (1991), and Firelight (1997). His other film scores include Goodbye Gemini (1970), Hands of the Ripper (1971), Ooh... You Are Awful (1972), the film version of Man About the House (1974), In Celebration (1975), Rogue Male (1976), Charlie Muffin (1979), Rise and Fall of Idi Amin (1981), When the Whales Came (1989), Lighthouse Hill (2004), and Grace of Monaco (2014). In recognition of Gunning's unique contribution to music, he was awarded with a BASCA Gold Badge Award October 19, 2011."

The program of three short symphonies begins with the Symphony No. 10, which Gunning wrote in 2016. The composer describes it as a series of variations, extending about twenty minutes and played nonstop, without movements. OK, so that doesn't sound much like the description of a symphony. We'll take his word for it. The piece begins on a somewhat lonely, almost melancholy and certainly serious note, before breaking into the full orchestra where the mood starts to change and become more optimistic. As I say, it's just over twenty minutes long, and by the six or seven minute mark it's up and running. Note, however, that like most modern music, it's all about tone and feeling and atmosphere rather than catchy themes and popular melodies. Still, Gunning has had a lot of experience in these latter elements of music, and they do not entirely desert him here. While the music does not seem to me entirely memorable, it passes a pleasant few minutes, with several lovely moments.

Kenneth Woods
Next we have Gunning's Symphony No. 2, in three movements, by a small margin the longest work on the disc. He initially wrote it in 2003 and then, because he wasn't happy with it, put it away in a drawer until 2018. And now we have it, getting its première recording along with the other two symphonies. It plays more like a conventional symphony than No. 10 due to its fast-slow-fast contrasting movements, although for that matter none of the movements completely conform to these tempos. Rather, each movement seems to contrast phrase after phrase and beat after beat.

Understand, these are the first recordings of these pieces, so we have to trust Maestro Woods as to how they go. I do trust him, and certainly he handles everything as though he had been playing them all his life. Yet I still didn't become particularly involved with this symphony, finding it too static despite its constantly shifting differentiations in pacing and temper, from smooth and mellow to intense and dramatic.

The final work on the disc is the Symphony No. 12, written in 2018, the same year he completed the revised version of No. 2. Gunning describes Symphony No. 12 as "far more overtly tonal than Nos. 2 or 10. I needed to write something more direct, even melodic, and the textures are mostly clear and uncomplicated." It's in two movements and, as the composer indicates, more tuneful than the other pieces on the disc.

Perhaps because No. 12 is filled with the most accessible tunes and because I'm basically a philistine when it comes to modern music, I enjoyed this symphony best of all. It's really quite charming, and Maestro Wood brings out all of its most delightful lyricism. There is also an easy rhythmic pulse that both the conductor and orchestra capture well, adding to the musical pleasures. (Don't expect all sunshine and light, however. The first movement ends in almost melodramatic fashion, and the funeral of a friend inspired the second movement. Still, it was this movement that I liked most of all, perhaps because of its pictorial nature and quiet thoughtfulness. It reminded me of the English pastoral music of a hundred years earlier.

In sum, there is much to like about the album, much to ponder in placid contemplation, much to like about the conductor and orchestra, and especially much to like about the sound. If the music is maybe in part a little too routine, too complacent, too safe, well, that's the price you pay for the parts that are truly moving. On balance, it seems a good deal.

Producer Christopher Gunning and engineers Mike Hatch and Mike Cox recorded the music at Hoddinot Hall, Cardiff, Wales in April 2019. The sound is quite realistic, as we have to expect from non-live English studio productions. It is wide and deep, with a natural tonal balance that does not unnecessarily favor any part of the frequency spectrum. So the sound is neither soft nor forward, dull nor bright. It's also quite smooth, with well defined though not spotlighted delineation. Add in a good, strong dynamic impact, and you get some impressive sonics. In fact, the more I think about it (and the more I listen to it) this may be some of the best sound I've heard in years.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below:

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on the Big Jon and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa