Tag Archives: Sir Donald Runnicles

EIF: Tannhauser

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

It will be a shame if 2023’s big Wagner opera in concert at Nicola Benedetti’s first Festival becomes known as “the Tannhauser of the music stands”, but understandable. Not only did the titular tenor hero of the piece require one to rest his score on, but the one supporting the copy from which conductor Sir Donald Runnicles was working on the podium collapsed early in the evening and a front desk fiddle player abandoned her instrument to effect repairs while the music continued.

That incident did nothing to impair the performance, but the same cannot be said for Clay Hilley’s reliance on the music, which was clearly more than just an aide memoire. Understandably, when every other principal in the cast was singing from memory, he appeared self-conscious about it, and as soprano Emma Bell’s Elisabeth and baritone Thomas Lehman’s Wolfram began to use more of the available space at the front of the stage in their performances he looked more static as the tale unfolded.

In the final analysis, the rest of the ingredients more than compensated. Unlike previous concert Wagner operas at recent Festivals this was a visiting company production with all the principals, whatever their country of origin, associated with Deutsche Oper Berlin, who supplied the chorus and orchestra (augmented by players from the RSNO), where Runnicles is Music Director.

Like Hilley, many were singing their roles for the first time – and some were doing so on just a few hours’ sleep because of delays and cancellations in their travel arrangements. The vivacious Venus of Irene Roberts was among those and her angry responses to the grumbling home-sick Tannhauser were an early highlight. Both she and Bell brought the drama to the performance, alongside Lehman’s characterisation of Wolfram as a resigned narrator of the tale and Albert Pesendorfer’s authoritative Landgrave, but there was real strength in the smaller roles too, notably Meechot Marrero’s Young Shepherd, sung from the top of the organ gallery, and tenor Attilio Glaser’s contribution to the song contest as Walther.

With two dozen RSNO players involved on and off stage, the Berlin instrumentalists were superb, from the muted ensemble of the opening bars of the overture onwards, the winds joined by metronomic strings and expansive brass. The much-garlanded Deutsche Oper Chorus was also as magnificent as its reputation, and heard to better advantage here than would have been possible in a staged production.

Tannhauser is a work from which the highlights do leap out, and favourites like Elisabeth’s greeting to  the Hall of Song, the Pilgrim’s Chorus and Wolfram’s Song to the Evening Star were all superb, but ultimately it was the sensation of Runnicles leading an ensemble he knows inside out that made this Tannhauser, despite its superficial deficiencies, sensational.

Keith Bruce

EIF 2023

As the first Edinburgh Festival programme from new director Nicola Benedetti is announced, KEITH BRUCE delves into the musical treats in store

The question new Edinburgh International Festival director Nicola Benedetti poses on the front of her first programme brochure derives from the recently-republished last book Reverend Martin Luther King wrote before his death. However, she also describes “Where do we go from here?” as a challenge to the Festival itself as it moves on from the celebration of its 75th anniversary last year.

Sharing the platform at the media briefing launching this year’s event with Creative Director Roy Luxford and Head of Music Andrew Moore was a clear indication of continuity, and her stated intention of making the most of the talent the virtuoso violinist and passionate music education advocate found in place in the organisation. Significantly she has not taken on Fergus Linehan’s role of Chief Executive, now filled by Linehan’s Executive Director, Francesca Hegyi.

And there is much about that brochure, and the shape of the programming, that will be familiar to regular Festival attenders, no doubt reflecting the fact that many of the building blocks of the 2023 programme were already in place when Benedetti was appointed. What is very different is the way the events are listed, not by genre or venue, but in sections that continue her engagement with the philosophy of Dr King: Community over Chaos, Hope in the Face of Adversity, and A Perspective That’s Not One’s Own.

That makes perusal of the print a different experience, but not radically so, and it is clear that the new director’s pathways to engagement with the work of the artists invited to this year’s Festival have followed the programme, rather than shaped it.

What’s there to see and hear – the actual meat of this year’s event – will please a great many people, and perhaps even fans of the most hotly debated element of any recent Edinburgh Festival. Opera magazine speculated in the editorial of its May issue that there would be “no major staged opera for the first time in decades” and those precise words are probably strictly true. However, there will be many for whom the UK premiere of a Barry Kosky-directed Berliner Ensemble production of Brecht and Weill’s Threepenny Opera in the Festival Theatre is more than just the next best thing, and Theatre of Sound’s retelling of Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle as a contemporary two-hander with the Hebrides Ensemble at the Church Hill Theatre in the Festival’s final week looks most intriguing.

Concert performances of opera, a regular highlight of recent Edinburgh programmes, maintain their high standard. It is perhaps surprising that Wagner’s Tannhauser will have its first ever performance at the Festival in the Usher Hall on August 25, with American tenor Clay Hilley in the title role as local hero Sir Donald Runnicles conducts Deutsche Oper Berlin.

A fortnight earlier, Maxim Emelyanychev conducts the orchestra to which he has just committed a further five years of his career in Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Andrew Moore introduced this as the first of a series of concert performances of Mozart operas by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra with its ebullient Principal Conductor. The same orchestra undertook the same project under the baton of Charles Mackerras in the 1990s – although The Magic Flute was not part of that series.

It was also in the last decade of the 20th century that Ivan Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra first wowed Edinburgh audiences and that team provides the first of this Festival’s orchestral residencies. Beginning with an evening of music presented in a transformed Usher Hall with beanbags replacing the stalls seating, the orchestra also plays Bartok and Kodaly with Sir Andras Schiff and the National Youth Choir of Scotland’s National Girls Choir. Benedetti is involved as presenter of the first of the orchestra’s concerts, and also joins the BBC SSO and Ryan Wigglesworth on stage on the Festival’s first Sunday for a concert of new music that poses the question on the brochure cover. The young singers of NYCoS have their own concert, with the RSNO, at the Usher Hall on August 13, preceded by a demonstration of the Kodaly music teaching method that is pivotal to its success.

If those events clearly reflect the new director’s commitment to access and education, her use of the EIF’s home, The Hub, below the castle at the top of the Royal Mile, is another crucial ingredient. She intends The Hub to be the Festival’s “Green Room” but open to everyone and “a microcosm of the whole Festival” and it has events programmed most nights, most of them music and often drawing in performers who have bigger gigs in other venues.

They include players from the London Symphony Orchestra, which is 2023’s second resident orchestra, playing Rachmaninov and Shostakovich under Gianandrea Noseda and Szymanowski and Brahms with Sir Simon Rattle before turning its attention to Messiaen’s epic Turangalila-Symphonie, prefaced by a programme of French music that inspired it, with Benedetti again wearing her presenting hat.

The final residency is of the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela with conductors Gustavo Dudamel and Rafael Payare, prefaced by a concert by some of the musicians at The Hub. The Usher Hall also sees two concerts by the Oslo Philharmonic with conductor Klaus Makela and its programme begins with Tan Dun conducting the RSNO and the Festival Chorus in his own Buddha Passion and closes with Karina Canellakis conducting the BBC SSO and the Festival Chorus in Rachmaninov’s The Bells. Outside of the concert hall there will be free music-making in Princes Street Gardens at the start of the Festival and in Charlotte Square at its end, details of which will come in June.

With a full programme of chamber music at the Queen’s Hall as usual, a dance and theatre programme full of top flight international artists and companies also includes works of particular musical interest, specifically a new revival of choreographer Pina Bausch’s work using Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, which premiered in Edinburgh in 1978, and Deborah Warner’s staging of Benjamin Britten’s Phaedra.

More information at eif.co.uk, with online public booking opening on May 3, and in-person booking at the Hub available now.

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