Runnicles Bids Farewell to BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra


Brahms, Mahler: Denis Kozhukin (piano), BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Donald Runnicles (conductor), City Halls, Glasgow, 19.05.2016 (SRT)

Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 2
Mahler:  Symphony No. 1

All good things must come to an end, and with this blockbuster concert we (almost) said goodbye to Donald Runnicles’ tenure as Chief Conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.  His seven years at the helm haven’t exactly transformed the orchestra (they were already pretty good), but having a figure of his international significance has undeniably galvanised the music-making of the BBC Scottish and, some have argued, has shot a rod of electricity through the wider classical music scene in Scotland.

They gave him two meaty masterpieces for his send-off, either of which could have acted as the centrepiece of an evening on its own.  How wonderful, first of all, to have Denis Kozhukin back to play his second Brahms piano concerto in a week.  Last week I was blown away by the scale of his playing but also the lyricism of it, and the second concerto gave him an even more awesome vehicle for his talents.  The scale of the mighty Scherzo was there, but also playing of blissful tenderness in the Andante; and the first movement seemed to radiate poetry rather than architectural scale for its own sake, like a conversation rather than a display piece.  An energy radiates from everything he does, so he made a good partner for Runnicles’ last big night.  The orchestral strings were rooted in basses of chocolaty richness, and Runnicles paced the concerto like an unfolding drama.  That most beautiful moment when the main theme creeps back into the horns at the start of the first movement’s recapitulation (the finest moment in all Brahms?) seemed to emerge shimmering through the haze, and I loved the beautiful contrast, in the second movement’s Trio, between the bell-like clarity of the strings and the piano’s anguished, wispy meanderings.

Runnicles began this season with a stunning performance of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony, and there is beautiful symmetry in his ending the season with Mahler’s First.  It might have been designed to show off all of Runnicles’ best work with the orchestra.  He has brought to them his expertise in the core German repertoire, and has crafted a sound that could stand comparison with that of many Central European orchestras.  I’ve often praised their string sound, but the most dazzling thing about this Mahler 1 was the electric clarity of the brass, which brought sensational climaxes to the outer movements.  Importantly, though, Runnicles understands the völkisch element of this symphony, and this breathed large in the first two movements.  The second, for example, was light and airborne, for all that it was grounded in very earthy basses.  The orchestra’s playing of Mahler’s funeral march reminded me afresh of just how dazzling his orchestration is, the double bass solo, in particular, sounding uncanny and grotesque.  Against this backdrop, the Gesellen extract sounded so sweet on the violins, full of a young man’s yearning and regret, but still the most human thing you can find in that movement.  After its hair-raising opening, the march that launched the finale was incisive and savage, and it’s every recurrence seemed to spur the movement on.  However, the trumpets and the (fabulous) octet of horns that finally won the day blazed with all the energy they could muster towards the end, giving their all for their Chief on his final night.  Those final pages always raise the roof, but tonight they sounded particularly special, and the only thing that rivalled their energy was the massive ovation from the audience, richly deserved.  The concert was recorded for broadcast on Monday 23rd May, when you’ll be able to hear it for yourself.

And so it’s goodbye to Donald Runnicles.  He won’t be going far (he’ll be the orchestra’s Conductor Emeritus, and he’ll be back next season with Mahler 4), and I hope the energy he brought with him will remain long after his departure.  I’ll remember fondly his performances of the core German repertoire (Beethoven, Strauss and Mahler, in particular) and, unsurprisingly for someone who runs the Deutsche Oper in Berlin, I have special memories of his opera work in Scotland, especially Tristan and Wozzeck.  There is one more concert to go with him at the helm, though: he and the BBC Scottish will close this year’s Edinburgh International Festival with Schoenberg’s mighty Gurrelieder.  Get your ticket while you can.

Simon Thompson


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