Uplifting Russian Concert  from Runnicles and BBC Scottish SO

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mussorgsky, Scriabin, Shostakovich: Barry Douglas (piano), BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Donald Runnicles (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 28.09.2014 (SRT)

Mussorgsky: A Night on the Bare Mountain
Scriabin: Piano Concerto
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 10


I predictably begin every BBCSSO season by complaining about the lamentably small number of concerts they do in Edinburgh each year.  This year, at least, they are doing three rather than last year’s two, and one more pleasant side-effect of this is that we tend to get the pick of them.  Later this year Runnicles conducts Beethoven 9 and an evening of Beethoven and Sibelius, but tonight it was a Russian programme, ranging from the pops of Mussorgsky to the unsearchable depths of Shostakovich.  Runnicles is always the common link in the Edinburgh concerts, and that’s worth celebrating, too.  His Night on the Bare Mountain paid the piece the ultimate compliment of taking it seriously, crafting an interpretation that was always changing and never static.  Tempi fluctuated throughout, as did dynamics, giving the piece a life of its own that you seldom get in the concert hall (and almost never on disc).

Similarly, he breathed well-structured life into Scriabin’s Piano Concerto.  I’ve said before that Scriabin’s sound world is a bit of a mystery to me, but I found this early work (a new one to me) remarkably compelling, mainly because it flowed from episode to episode in a way that made thematic and musical sense.  Not only Runnicles, but Barry Douglas, too, brought strength and directness to the work, giving each melody just the right level of spotlighting before something new shimmered into view.  The orchestra rose to the kaleidoscopic challenge too, with the strings surpassing themselves in both the heady emotions of the outer movements and the gorgeously expressive middle movement.

Those same strings launched Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony with a sense of unknowable depth and overpowering gloom.  All the more impressive, then, that the violins could retain just the right level of cheek for their perky, syncopated second theme.  Runnicles isn’t particularly known as an interpreter of Shostakovich, but his vast experience in shaping the great paragraphs of Mahler have helped make him every bit as compelling in crafting moments like this huge opening canvas.  So too was his approach to the “Stalin” scherzo, which benefited from not giving away too much too soon.  Instead this was a movement full of ebb and flow that clearly built up to the astounding climaxes of its last minute (and even then there was the surprisingly quiet violin run to provide contrast).  Likewise, it was the solemn, purposeful introduction to the finale that felt like the real heart of the movement, not the suspiciously upbeat theme that follows.  The orchestra met Runnicles every step of the way, most impressively in the gloriously played third movement with it sparky piccolo, meandering violins and, above all, the bell-like clarity of the horns that sang out Elimra’s theme with tone that lifted me out of my seat.

Simon Thompson

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