Christopher Gunning: Symphony No 5; String Quartet No 1. © 2021 Signum Records Ltd

CD Spotlight

Existential Uncertainty

Symphonic and chamber music by Christopher Gunning, recommended by GERALD FENECH

'... both performances are nothing short of exhilarating ...'


Christopher Gunning, one of today's most prolific British composers, was born in Cheltenham on 5 August 1944. He studied at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, where his tutors included the famous Edmund Rubbra and Richard Rodney Bennett. Gunning has made a name for himself as a composer of film and TV scores, and his many awards include 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 garnered three Ivor Novello Awards for the TV miniseries Rebecca and the film scores for Under Suspicion (1991) and Firelight (1997).

In addition to performance of his TV and film scores, the composer's Saxophone Concerto and The Lobster have been performed at various venues including London's Southbank Centre. During the last two decades Gunning has concentrated more on concert music. Indeed, at the present, among other pieces, the composer has already thirteen symphonies to his name, where his musical language has developed into an individual yet approachable, colourful and highly expressive style which frequently gives his music a strongly dramatic and emotional flavour.

Gunning has four daughters, one of which is a professional oboist. The Fifth Symphony was written in 2009, and the composer regards it as the most ambitious of his symphonic canon up to now. Unlike Nos 1, 3, 4, 6 and 7, which are continuous, it is in four extended movements. There is no strict programme but the music moves through several phases, which could be said to correspond to one's journey from birth to death. The symphony is dedicated to Gunning's sister Rosemary, who grappled with illness throughout the composition of the work. Indeed, she died just as the composer was completing the piece.

The first movement is lyrical and dramatic and commences with motifs heard in woodwind flourishes, the notes of which will be used in various transformations during the course of the symphony. Otherwise the movement is shaped roughly like a classical first movement with opening subjects, a development section and a recapitulation.

Listen — Christopher Gunning: I (Symphony No 5)
(track 1, 1:00-1:59) ℗ 2021 Signum Records Ltd:

The second movement is far gentler, and in it the composer seems to want to share with the listener memories of his childhood days and early years of his four daughters. A soft flute theme gives way to more animated sections as well as more playful music.

Listen — Christopher Gunning: II (Symphony No 5)
(track 2, 6:01-6:55) ℗ 2021 Signum Records Ltd:

The third movement is all about vitality and adventure. Very energetic sections contrast with some lighter ones, and as the movement progresses one comes across some really stormy or even warlike music. There is a clash of thunder at the climax, after which things subside, and the movement ends as it began.

Listen — Christopher Gunning: III (Symphony No 5)
(track 3, 1:51-2:40) ℗ 2021 Signum Records Ltd:

The fourth movement is the most extended. Some of it is turbulent, some fiercely dramatic and some expressive. Finally the music returns once again to the opening motif, 'Dust to dust, ashes to ashes'.

Listen — Christopher Gunning: IV (Symphony No 5)
(track 4, 16:05-17:01) ℗ 2021 Signum Records Ltd:

The String Quartet No 1 was composed in 1999 and revised in 2006. Each of the four movements is based on a three-note motif C-D-G with its four possible transpositions. The first is an arch-shaped passacaglia, the second a fast semi-fugal scherzo, the third a quietly expressive andante, the last a bright rondo with an ostinato based on a three-note idea.

Listen — Christopher Gunning: Rondo Ostinato (String Quartet No 1)
(track 8, 0:01-0:54) ℗ 2021 Signum Records Ltd:

This is serious, mature music that is mostly tonal and often punctuated by an agitated urge to bring to the listener Gunning's preoccupation with worldly pain and often convulsive experiences that scar the soul. The String Quartet is not so extreme, but there are anxious traces that convey a certain existential uncertainty.

Listen — Christopher Gunning: Passacaglia (String Quartet No 1)
(track 5, 4:35-5:33) ℗ 2021 Signum Records Ltd:

The Royal Philharmonic and the Juno Quartet play their socks off, and both performances are nothing short of exhilarating, something that Gunning's music deserves. Indeed, this latest release is a sure confirmation of the composer's stature among the crop of contemporary British composers. Just add it to your collection.

Copyright © 29 July 2021 Gerald Fenech,
Gzira, Malta








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