Christopher Bunting was best known as one of the most talented of British cellists, but he was also an accomplished pianist, teacher, composer and conductor, who enjoyed an international reputation. He was born in 1924, into a family where amateur music had flourished for many generations. His father, an engineer in the Indian Civil Service, could play any theme after one hearing and his mother played both organ and cello. From early childhood, Christopher and his brother would sit at the piano imitating the style of various composers.
At the age of five, Christopher began piano lessons at the Hampstead Conservatory of Music (now replaced in the Finchley Road by Woolworth's), presided over by a tiny lady who, he said, "never truly emerged from the 18th century, let alone the 20th". A year later he began learning the cello and, in the course of time, began studying with Ivor James. However, he never abandoned the piano; much later, when already established as a celebrated solo cellist, he made a recording for the BBC of the Brahms E minor sonata, playing both parts himself.
During the Second World War, Bunting served in the Air Training Corps and the Home Guard, later becoming celebrated for his ability to identify a plane immediately, even by sound. He was subsequently called up to serve in the Royal Norfolk Regiment and also spent some time entertaining the troops with the Stars in Battledress unit. The distinguished violinist Emmanuel Hurwitz first met Bunting in 1945 when he, too, was in that unit, and recalls:
Christopher was a member of the orchestra and their principal cellist was William Pleeth [later celebrated soloist and teacher of Jacqueline du Pré]. He told me that Bunting was a brilliant young player who would certainly make a name for himself.
After the war Bunting took a Tripos Degree in Music at Cambridge under the musicologist Thurston Dart. He then had a period of study with Maurice Eisenberg in the United States which was for him "a revelation" and from this time his career began to develop. His début recital with the pianist Gerald Moore at the Wigmore Hall in 1952 was an outstanding success and he was hailed by the critics as "a great cellist".
Many offers came his way, but an opportunity had arisen whereby he would fulfil a long-held ambition. He was awarded a scholarship to study with the great Pablo Casals in Prades. Bunting had first heard "Le Maître" when, at the age of six, he was taken by his mother to the Queen's Hall in London, and had never forgotten the impression Casals' playing made on him. His first actual meeting with Casals took place at the Tonhalle in Zurich when he played in an orchestra of 120 cellos led by Paul Tortelier in celebration of the great man's 75th birthday in 1951.
Bunting spent the best part of a year with Casals, and summed up his influence thus:
Casals was a fount of music and it was really a question of how much you could take. Things that were said and experienced at the time tend to flower much later. The relentless drive towards an ideal was miraculously combined with endless patience and great gentleness. His motto, "Freedom with Order", perhaps speaks to us with increasing force in the confused times in which we live.
On his return from France in 1953, Bunting's career went from strength to strength. He gave duo recitals with distinguished pianists including Peter Wallfisch and Yonty Solomon and formed a trio with William Glock and Olive Zorian. He premiered the Gerald Finzi Cello Concerto with the Hallé Orchestra under Sir John Barbirolli at the Cheltenham Festival in 1955 and the Rawsthorne Cello Concerto with the Philharmonia under Sir Malcolm Sargent at the Proms in 1966. He gave the British premiere of Hans Werner Henze's Ode to the West Wind in 1957 and many broadcasts, which included a number of first British performances.
Also a talented composer, Bunting published pieces for solo cello and arrangements for string orchestra. His Concerto for Cello and Strings (1989) is outstanding and received its first performance with the composer as soloist with the Morley Chamber Orchestra conducted by Lawrence Leonard in the beautiful Inigo Jones St Paul's Church in Covent Garden. Bunting is known for his many publications of studies and exercises, the most significant being the three volumes of Essay on the Craft of Cello Playing (1982).
Over the years, Bunting earned a reputation as a very fine teacher who had the rare gift of being able to adjust to pupils of all ages and varied ability. I once asked him how he approached gifted children, and he replied:
Talented children tend to become submerged if they are "dreamy artistic types" and this image is self-perpetuating. With the right teacher they suddenly wake up and stop thinking of themselves as "idiots".
He taught for six years at the Menuhin school in Surrey from its inception in 1963, but finally decided reluctantly to resign because he could not battle with the traffic on the journey from Hampstead twice a week. However, his interest in the young continued throughout his life.
He was a professor of cello at the Royal College of Music for many years and conducted an advanced class at the Youth Music Centre in north London. From the early 1970s Bunting had also shown considerable talent as a conductor, and for many years he conducted the string orchestra of the Youth Music Centre. He was also associated with Pro Corda, the summer school in Suffolk for young musicians to be coached and perform chamber music.
In 1994, Bunting's performing career came to an end when he suffered what the doctors thought was a virus affecting the spine, although his condition was never satisfactorily diagnosed, and he spent the last 10 years in a wheelchair. Despite this problem, Bunting continued to teach and kept in touch with his friends and colleagues. His brilliant intellect was never affected and he retained his dry sense of humour to the end.
As a man he was kind and generous. He could always be relied upon to give advice and, although he was sometimes blunt with his suggestions, they invariably turned out to be the right ones.
Margaret CampbellReuse content