United Kingdom Beethoven, Strauss: BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Donald Runnicles (conductor), Usher Hall, 11.08.2012 (SRT)
Beethoven: Symphony No. 6, “Pastoral”
Strauss: An Alpine Symphony
The ostensible link between the two works on this programme is nature – they’re probably the two most famous depictions of the outdoors in music – but you could hardly find two more different evocations of the open air, both in scale and in the way they go about it. Beethoven works within what is still a broadly classical form, albeit straining at its boundaries and redrawn on his own terms, using a mostly standard classical orchestra and a delineated structure of movements, while Strauss through-composes a massive 50-minute structure which is explicitly programmatic, tangibly descriptive and seems about to burst the very form of the symphony orchestra itself – in Beethoven’s day clarinets seemed inventive, while Strauss uses Wagner tubas, wind machines and a chorus of off-stage hunting horns!
So how to deal with the programmatic aspects of each work? The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra have come on in leaps and bounds under the directorship of Donald Runnicles, and the thing that impressed me most about them tonight was the great colour of their string tone, a rich, chocolatey mellowness that was at the same time infinitely supple. They used this to add a gorgeous hue to the first two movements of the Pastoral, a warm and inviting tone that suggests nature at its most benevolent, but then conjured up a brilliant skirl for the peasant dance of the Scherzo, when the rollicking horns added an extra touch of colour. Their (and Runnicles’) finest moment, however, came at the pianissimo coda of the finale, where they released an extra element of warmth that they had been holding back for the whole piece. Runnicles’ approach to the symphony was fairly measured, with a gentle unfolding that helped the first section but meant that the storm lacked an edge of power, but for this moment he halved the tempo and allowed the first violins’ unobtrusive theme to unfold in all its simple beauty; a lovely touch that provided a fitting culmination to the symphony.
Colour was in plentiful supply for the Alpine Symphony, but the thing that impressed me most about this reading was Runnicles’ sense of control. Each episode of this very episodic work was seen in the context of the whole and no individual section was allowed to get out of hand or to dominate. The opening of the work was a genuine pianissimo, against which the mighty theme of the mountain sounded distinctly but unobtrusively, and this sense of necessary restraint helped the big moments to sound all the more massive when they came. The calm before the storm, for example, was every bit as exciting as the storm itself, the music seeming to hang in suspended animation as it waited for something big just around the corner. Even when the storm came it was thrilling without detracting from that section’s recapitulatory function. The sense of structure that so clearly informs Runnicles’ Brahms and Bruckner was just as important in his reading of Strauss, and the work sounded all the better for it. The orchestral playing was super, redolent with evocative colour, but, again, the most impressive element for me was the strings, be they surging upward in the bullish “Ascent” theme, underpinning the walk through the forest, shimmering in the spray of the waterfall, or losing their colour as the sun became obscured, here sounding positively emaciated. The final Ausklang section, as the walkers look back on their day’s achievements, was shot through with a lovely sense of nostalgia, almost of neglect. Is it also a lament for the loss of an age? The end of Romanticism? The end of Strauss’s career as a writer of tone poems? Well, maybe. Whether you buy this or not, the final pages remind us that nature, like the mountain, remains constant through it all.