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.
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: