Tag Archives: Sir Donald Runnicles

BBC SSO / Runnicles

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.

Ken Walton

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 

EIF: Fidelio & Anne Sofie von Otter

Usher Hall & Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh

One of Scotland’s main promoters of chamber music once told a sceptical me that singers were a harder sell than instrumentalists. My dubiety was, admittedly, based on the star names that appear in the Edinburgh Festival’s Queen’s Hall series, and the appearance of Swedish mezzo Anne Sofie von Otter certainly produced the first full house the venue has seen this year.

That audience undoubtedly went home happy to judge by the ovation she received after the Schubert encore. That was the only occasion in which all the musicians involved – pianist Christoph Berner and string quartet Quatuor Van Kuijk – performed together, but which required von Otter to recite rather than sing.

It was a somewhat odd conclusion to a brief recital that bracketed a pocket “Shubertiad” with songs by Rufus Wainwright. That combination may have made more sense with originally advertised string quartet Brooklyn Rider, who were apparently unable to travel to Edinburgh and yet are joining the singer in Kilkenny and Copenhagen over the next few days. As it was, the two trios of Wainwrights were accompanied by piano, as were von Otter’s four Schubert songs, interspersed with the four movements of the Death and the Maiden quartet, played by Quatuor Van Kuijk.

Whether the imaginative programming served the material is a matter of taste. Wainwright’s unpublished Trois Valses Anglaises are a fine addition to von Otter’s “pop” repertoire, sitting nicely alongside the Brian Wilson songs she recorded with Elvis Costello some years ago. Employing small slides in pitch, she uses a different tone for these than she employs on “classic” art songs, with some show tune intonation, specifically reminiscent of Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George here.

The three Songs for Lulu that followed the Schubert are from Wainwright’s 2010 album and without his own distinctive voice revealed older influences, Sad With What I Have kin to Sinatra Sings For Only The Lonely, and Who Are You New York? nodding to Ol’ Blue Eyes’ strutting hymn to The Big Apple.

Von Otter’s diction in German is crisper than her English, truth to tell, as her Schubert songs, Death and the Maiden and three from Winterreise, demonstrated. The hymn-like simplicity of Die Nebensonnen was the most suited to her mezzo, while Der Wegweiser and Einsamkeit cry out darker hues.

The string players sounded particularly fine on the Scherzo and Presto Finale of the Death and the Maiden quartet. Earlier leader Nicolas Van Kuijk and cellist Anthony Kondo had been over-dominant in the group’s balance.

The singer turned stage manager for some of the shepherding of her colleagues in the lunchtime recital just as home-town hero Sir Donald Runnicles adopted that role for the curtain call at the concert performance of Fidelio in the Usher Hall later in the day.

Sir Donald Runnicles conducts this concert performance of Beethoven’s only opera, telling a moving story of a wife’s devotion and the resilience of human nature. Usher Hall, Edinburgh.

Using Sir David Pountney’s added English narration, delivered by Sir Willard White, the luxury cast of soloists included a superb Leonore from Emma Bell, who stepped in to replace Jennifer Davis. Like Gunther Groissbock’s glorious Rocco, she was entirely “off the book”, but that was not true of everyone, with Kim-Lillian Strebel, as Marzelline, turning to the score at one point and Markus Bruck reading the music throughout.

Terrifically well sung by the Philharmonia Voices chorus as well as the principals, and played by the Philharmonia Orchestra in the last appearance of its busy Festival residency, this Fidelio was musically outstanding, and rapturously received for that. Runnicles was in his element.

However, it cannot go down as a classic in the recent history of EIF operas-in-concert. Although some of the cast, notably Groissbock, seemed to be trying to guide things, it lacked some directorial shape, with Willard White poorly placed behind his narrator’s desk and the arias and ensembles delivered in a parade-ground line across the stage. Fidelio is fantastic music, but it needs a bit of help to be drama.

Keith Bruce

Pictures by Andrew Perry