United Kingdom Beethoven, Sibelius: Guy Braunstein (violin), BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra / Donald Runnicles (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 22.02.2015 (SRT)
Beethoven: Overture: Coriolan
Sibelius: Violin Concerto
Sibelius: Symphony No. 7
Beethoven: Leonore Overture No. 3
I’d never heard Donald Runnicles conduct Sibelius before tonight, but I’d suspected that his sculpted, architectural approach to conducting would suit the Finn’s music very well. So it proved, with a remarkably responsive approach to the Seventh Symphony that worked very well indeed. Sibelius’ structure is so tightly organised and built from such tiny fragments that it runs the risk of dissolving into its very impressive parts. Not here. The building blocks were delineated very clearly, right from the drag of the basses on the opening scale and the winds’ rippling response to it; but the most impressive thing was the perpetual sense of movement. This is a symphony that almost never is: instead it is always becoming, and Runnicles managed not only to keep things moving but to manage the ebb and flow so as to shape an experience that developed naturally, managing the frequent changes in tempo with consummate skill. Sibelius’ own analogy of the symphony being like a river was never far from my mind while listening to him, from the spotlighting of certain key elements of the texture through to the way he managed the strings’ undercurrent against the lighter elements of the wind sound. In particular, there was an impressive sense of winding down in the final five minutes, and I liked the way he lingered deliberately, lovingly over the final cadence.
The continually impressive sound of the orchestra undeniably helped. The strings had a velvety feel to them that enabled them to surge impressively and added an extra edge of grandeur. The middle (violas and cellos) were particularly strong, enabling the violins to take on a frigid edge from time to time, and the brass were astoundingly clean, most triumphantly at the repeated emergence of the trombone theme whose ringing nobility sang out against an orchestral texture of radiant confidence. Most impressively, I really got the impression that every section was listening to what was going on around them, responding to one another in a manner that was natural and organic, almost as though Runnicles was merely supervising the running of a well-oiled machine rather than painstakingly directing it.
The Violin Concerto was equally impressive in terms of sound, with the orchestral texture proving powerful in the first movement, if a little foggy in the climax of the finale. No doubt, though, the star of this show was Guy Braunstein, whose violin solo seemed to stride into the music, taking control of the sound on his own terms. Little things stood for a lot, such as the turn at the end of the violin’s opening theme, which often passes with little comment but here was made to take on a significance of its own, hinting at depths of power that lay behind it. Braunstein’s technique was undeniably impressive, tossing off the runs and fiendish double-stops without breaking a sweat, but remaining controlled and still throughout. It was a shame that he seemed to lose his tuning slightly in the finale, and this movement had more of a skin-of-the-teeth feel to it than the others. He kept a lyrical, almost cantabile feel to the slower moments, though, and it’s that which impressed me most.
The Beethoven overtures were an unusual but effective idea to top and tail the concert. Coriolan warmed up to an exciting climax, though the first half was a little workaday. Leonore 3 was brilliantly judged from the start, however, with an opening full of pregnant expectation and a main theme that blazed thrillingly into its punchy climax.