A fresh chance to hear the British composer’s pastoral-themed concertos

Harriet Mackenzie, Richard Harwood: Gunning

Harriet Mackenzie, Richard Harwood: Gunning

The Strad Issue: October 2020

Description: A fresh chance to hear the British composer’s pastoral-themed concertos

Musicians: Harriet Mackenzie (violin) Richard Harwood (cello) Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Christopher Gunning

Works: Gunning: Violin Concerto; Cello Concerto; Birdflight

Catalogue number: SIGNUM SIGCD621


This album was first released back in 2016 on the now-defunct Discovery Records, and its contents remain the same on this Signum reincarnation – just more attractively packaged and on a label with clout, one that composer Christopher Gunning is entering into a meaningful relationship with.

The album opens with the Violin Concerto, Gunning’s love song to the Welsh landscape written after a 2012 walk to the top of the Sugar Loaf mountain near Abergavenny. Pastoral in sound world and accessible without sounding ‘simple’, the work clearly honours Gunning’s pedagogical lineage, pupil that he was of Edmund Rubbra and Richard Rodney Bennett. Central to the Concerto’s construction is the melodic development of the violin’s singing lines, and Harriet Mackenzie’s vibrant, tautly lyrical and conviction-filled reading has them unfurling here in thoroughly compelling form. Richard Harwood is no less of a successful champion of the darker Cello Concerto, a work inspired by a visit to a care home – take the way his direct, amber tones turn on a coin in the central ‘Racing’ movement, between urgent, angular acrobatics and warm, tender interludes. The sound is warm and natural, placing the concerto soloists just enough out in front while still realising the many details of the orchestral score.

The RPO is on form, and the individual players’ solo chance to shine comes at the album’s close, when we are neatly circled back to pastoralism for the tone poem Birdflight, full of spotlight opportunities for the RPO’s woodwind. If you fancy a non-trite modern spin on 20th-century British pastoralism, and with a great pair of concerto soloists in to boot, then this album is worth checking out.