City Halls, Glasgow
If Sir Donald Runnicles proved anything in this unmissable reunion with his former Scottish orchestra (he is, of course, still connected to the BBC SSO as conductor emeritus), it was that great conductors have an innate ability to connect viscerally and impulsively with the players, even when they’ve been apart for some time.
As such, there was a deep-rooted nostalgia hard-wired into this thrilling performance of one single, monumental work – Mahler’s Ninth Symphony – in which the Edinburgh-born maestro reminded us just how electrifying and passionate the SSO can sound working in response to such magnetic charisma.
Mahler’s last completed symphony, written in the final years of his life, takes us on a journey of initial despair – the so-called “faltering heart beat” – and elemental frustration, to the all-but- Bacchanalian frenzy of its central escapism, and to the grim acceptance of a finale that fades to nothing yet powerfully encapsulates the unquenchable rapture of inner peace.
It all looked so easy for Runnicles, a robust mainstay of a figure on the podium whose economy of gesture gave all the signals necessary to mine essential and complex detail, while also allowing the big picture to unfold with inexorable potency and organic inevitability. What resulted was a spine-tingling awareness of the SSO working with him, not for him: moments where little was asked for but absolutely every telling morsel was delivered.
Capturing that big picture is so important when much of Mahler’s writing in this symphony is like an endless tapestry of broken threads, dizzy intertwining snatches of signature, recollected material that collide in mid-air, often abruptly dismissed, yet making such unquestioning sense in this all-consuming performance.
The Andante comodo was marked by virtuosic savagery at its height, but in the course of its steady progression combined molten resignation with the penetrating incision of multiple competing motifs. The inner movements oozed Mahlerian grotesquerie, tantalising and mischievous in the deliberate Ländler-like awkwardness of the second movement, endlessly high-spirited and ultimately brutally dismissive in the Rondo-Burleske. Runnicles’ finale was truly breathtaking, its prime thematic cell – essentially a drawn-out musical turn – single-mindedly dominating the overriding, at times crushingly euphoric, solemnity. The dissipating ending was met by stunned silence.
There are moments when we are drawn so deeply into a performance that the world outside ceases momentarily to matter. This was one of them.
This concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and is available to listen to on BBC Sounds. It was repeated in Aberdeen (10 Feb), with a final performance on Sunday (12 Feb) at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh