Proms 27: Fine Bruckner from Scotland at The Proms

United KingdomUnited Kingdom BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Donald Runnicles (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, 3.8.2012 (CC)

Wagner: Siegfried Idyll
Bruckner: Symphony No. 8 in C minor (1884-87, revised 1889/90, ed. Nowak)

The classic pairing of Wagner and Bruckner was on offer here. This is a massive challenge for any orchestra, of course. The other coupling on offer, the BBC Scottish SO and Donald Runnicles, was a more intriguing and, arguably, more controversial one. Runnicles has had an impressive career, particularly in San Francisco; he has also appeared at both the Salzburg and Bayreuth Festivals. Whatever the BBC Scottish’s strengths, it is not a great international orchestra. Yet Runnicles’ return to his roots in 2009, when he became the orchestra’s Chief Conductor (he was born in Edinburgh) has reaped its rewards.

These rewards were immediately evident in the warmly affectionate solo strings of Siegfried Idyll (Runnicles opted for a large pool of string players, while using solo strings for long passages). The music blossomed naturally and flowed easily. The major impression left was of the sheer control of the players, though. This was clearly a considered interpretation, its pianissimi belying the RAH’s huge acoustic space and providing chamber music intimacy. Some textures approached radiance, while the coda had a proper sense of the pastoral. Throughout there was a proper sense of the music breathing, of space.

From there to the vast edifice of Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony (heard in the 1889/90 revision in the Nowak edition) is a huge leap. Here is music for which the Albert Hall could have been explicitly constructed. Antiphonally-placed violins helped delineate Bruckner’s part-writing throughout. Runnicles’ reading was impressive for its keen intelligence. He inspired his orchestra to realise the sense of awakening at the opening, and throughout he was alive to the emotional impact of Bruckner’s panels. So it was that a palpable sense of loneliness – at the horn and oboe duet in the first movement, for example – could co-exist with, and be juxtaposed with, sections of great warmth.

The upper strings were clearly well drilled, as the trickier passages were dispatched with hardly a second thought. The brass alone seemed to be warming their way in (by the time of the symphony’s end, they were resplendent). There was a sense of all players and conductor working together to a shared goal. The only problem was that one did not feel that Runnicles held and projected Bruckner’s larger structure in the same way that, for example, Günter Wand, Celibidache or Giulini would. So it was that the dissolve at the end of the first movement was a fine moment, but it did not quite come naturally.

The Scherzo, shot through with nervous, tensile energy that contrasted with islets of great beauty, and the sophisticated transformation of dance in the Trio, seemed to reach the next level of Bruckner performance. The great Adagio, which came in at around the 25 minute mark, was the emotional heart of this reading. Again, Runnicles highlighted the sense of underlying unrest as well as, here, a weight of unbearable sadness which sometimes manifested the tenderness of mourning. The BBCSSO strings responded well, although the sound could yet be more sonorous, have more depth of sound. Superb Wagner tubas set the seal on a memorable reading, though. The climax made its point, and seemed to somehow be the catalyst for the drama of the brass-drenched opening of the finale. In this last movement, string counterpoint and Bruckner’s sighing gestures were particularly impressive. The brass department had saved its best for last. If not definitive, this was a fine reading of Bruckner’s Eighth given by an orchestra clearly inspired by its Chief Conductor.

Colin Clarke