Runnicles’ Celebratory 60th Birthday Concert Is Tempered with Sad News

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mozart, Beethoven: Laura Samuel (violin), Scott Dickinson (viola), Angela Meade (soprano), Elizabeth Bishop (mezzo), Stuart Skelton (tenor), Marko Mimica (bass-bar), Edinburgh Festival Chorus, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Donald Runnicles (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 16.11.2014 (SRT)

Mozart: Sinfonia Concertante
Beethoven: Symphony No. 9


This concert, with a suitably impressive programme, was planned to mark Donald Runnicles’ 60th birthday. Sadly, he announced last month that his period as Chief Conductor of the BBCSSO would come to an end in 2016; “sadly” because they have come on in leaps and bounds under him, with some marvellous performances of, especially, the core Austro-German repertoire that is so dear to him. He’s staying on as Conductor Emeritus, but his guiding hand and compelling influence will be much missed.

Still, let’s enjoy him while we have him, and this was a good programme to mark his big occasion, playing both to his strengths and to the orchestra’s. A work like Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante tends to sound a lot better with soloists drawn from the ranks of the orchestra rather than stars shipped in: this piece, like the same composer’s Flute and Harp concerto or Beethoven’s Triple Concerto, needs to develop organically and depends on the soloists’ listening to one another, and to their colleagues, more than it depends on virtuoso firepower. So it proved this evening, with a marvellously natural sounding performance featuring as soloists the BBCSSO’s leader and principal viola. While their keynote was cooperation, they also distinguished themselves from one another very effectively, Laura Samuel’s violin leaping cleanly and expressively above the stave, while Scott Dickinson’s viola sounded dark, chocolaty and much more thoughtful. They sounded like perfect sparring partners in the outer movements, but the highlight was the glorious, strangely profound C minor slow movement, one of the young composer’s most profound utterances to date, which carried all the expressive power of an operatic aria, led by the soaring violin tone with the viola providing much more than mere support.

Runnicles isn’t particularly known as a Mozartian, so it was a pleasant surprise to find him a subtle, responsive shaper of the composer’s lines, allowing the orchestra to consult as equal partners, never to dominate. Beethoven, on the other hand, sits at the centre of his repertoire, and how wonderful it was to hear what he could do with, perhaps, the most important and influential symphony of them all. This was a big, muscular reading, built on the bedrock of rich, luxurious string sound that cemented the certainty that this was a reading from a symphony orchestra, a long way from a period chamber band.  Those strings were incisive, bold and velvety, but also flexible, as shown in the contrapuntal writing of the first movement and the agility of the Scherzo. None of this came at the expense of beauty, however, of which there was plenty in the smooth, flowing Adagio. Runnicles conducted with an ear for togetherness and an eye on structure. The Adagio’s beautiful expanse unfolded naturally, while the energy of the Scherzo sounded like a demented machine. Crescendos, too, were made to count for all that they were worth, even slightly elongated, most triumphantly, though not exclusively, in the coda of the first movement.

The soloists were all good. Marko Mimica had an exciting immediacy to his opening recitative and the first verse of the ode, while Stuart Skelton, sounding rather baritonal tonight, brought strength and energy to the Turkish section. The ladies sounded a little squally to start with, but both found rich tone in the later quartet, especially Angela Meade. After a slightly tentative start, the Edinburgh Festival Chorus found their form triumphantly, singing with vigour, power and even pretty impressive diction. This was a birthday treat that Runnicles could be proud of.

Simon Thompson

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