Adams, Mahler, Brahms, BBC Scottish Orchestra Plays in Edinburgh

Adams, Mahler, Brahms: Karen Cargill (mezzo-soprano), BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Donald Runnicles (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 10.04.2011 (SRT)
Adams: My Father Knew Charles Ives
Mahler: Rückert-Lieder
Brahms: Symphony No. 2
Donald Runnicles’ reputation rests primarily on his great interpretations of the core German repertoire so it’s no surprise that his reading of Brahms’ Second Symphony carried grandeur and weight that spoke of unquestionable authority in this music.  His sculpting of the sound was done with the skill of an architect, keenly aware of the way Brahms builds such great spans of music out of such small elements.  The strings of the BBC SSO, in particular, carried tremendous weight and scale that matched the inspiration Brahms found in the mountains surrounding his Austrian holiday home.  The wind playing allowed the sun to shine through, but the turmoil – even the fear – that underpins so much of this music was brought to the surface without obfuscation or fudging.  This may be Brahms’ sunniest symphony, but the sun only shines brightly when contrasted with the darkness.
Runnicles is less well known for his readings of modern music so it was refreshing to hear his take on John Adams.  My Father Knew Charles Ives has little to do with Ives himself: it’s more of a take on Adams’ relationship with his own father through an evocation of his home and growing up.  The music works mainly through great blocks of contrasts.  The second movement, for example, moves from an eerie evocation of the misty waters of the lake in New Hampshire where Adams’ parents met, through to an endearing take on the jazz music that brought them together.  It’s not till the end, though, that you hear some of Adams’ trademark tintinnabulations pulsating through the score.  Runnicles guided the orchestra through some often tricky music, colouring the shafts of light that shoot through the score and allowing them to evolve into something altogether more threatening in each movement.  Both he and the orchestra seemed to revel in the feeling of chaos that Adams unleashed without losing a sense of structure.
Karen Cargill’s dark, rich mezzo was just right for Mahler’s gorgeous Rückert settings, though she sounded more at home in the bottom of her register where she created some gorgeous sounds in the songs which most searchingly explore the depths of the human soul.  She was less comfortable in the more upbeat early songs, but she gave us a warm tone to luxuriate in for the final song as Rückert and Mahler contemplate renunciation of the world and drifting off into an unknowable bliss.  Her partnership with Runnicles and the orchestra is one to cherish and one we can look forward to again when they perform Mahler’s Resurrection symphony at the Edinburgh International Festival.
The BBC SSO have just announced their new season for 2011-12.  For full details go to

Simon Thompson