Magnificent Playing from Strings in BBC Scottish Orchestra’s Mahler 10

United KingdomUnited Kingdom   Glazunov, Mahler: James Ehnes (violin), BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Donald Runnicles (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 27.9.15 (SRT)

Glazunov: Violin Concerto

Mahler: Symphony No. 10 (full length performing version – third version reconstructed by Deryck Cooke)

Not all conductors are convinced by Deryck Cooke’s performing version of Mahler 10 (and nor, sadly, are all audience members, as evidenced by the embarrassing quantity of empty seats at this concert), but Donald Runnicles clearly is. He is ending his final season as Chief Conductor of the BBCSSO with Mahler’s First Symphony, and he begins the season with Mahler’s last. If there is a nice structural symmetry to this, then it also coincides with the conductor’s good eye for the necessarily patchy structure of this work. This isn’t the place to rehearse the debates about Cooke’s reconstruction: suffice it to say that I’ve been convinced for years, and it thrills me to hear this swansong played with such vigour and commitment as here.

As I’ve said many times before, it’s the strings that make the BBC SSO so good in repertoire like this, and so it proved here. Right from the off, the violas that play the sinuous opening gesture sounded haunted and pale, but the singing violin line that gave out the main theme of the first Adagio was bright and airbound, complemented by a marvellous horn solo. This was music not of valediction but of assertive confidence, reminding me that perhaps we shouldn’t be as certain of Mahler’s final years as we often think we are. Throughout the symphony that middle register of cellos and violas was like solid mahogany, while the violins sailed above them, most gloriously in the final peroration of the last movement, singing out the flute’s theme with quiet certainty and then giving out the final “Almschi” sigh with a sound of gentle assurance. It’s amazing that those same strings sounded so racked and flickering in the central Purgatorio, or that they were capable of such controlled mayhem in both of the Scherzos. Even that famous nine-note discord that sounds in both the outer movements had an incongruous beauty to it here, like the swelling bellows of a great organ. Not to ignore them, the winds, too, had plenty of character, their skirling managing to change the mood of the music almost instantly in places, and giving a breath of fresh air to the Ländler-like moments of the second movement. What will stick with me from this, though, was Runnicles totally in tune with his orchestra, controlling the great arch of the symphony like someone who has been doing it all his life.

It seems almost incidental to remark that one of the world’s greatest violinists was also on the billing, albeit not playing one of the world’s greatest violin concertos. Still, James Ehnes paid Glazunov the compliment of taking him seriously, and he produced a beautifully cogent sound, full of cantabile tone and dazzling technique that almost felt wasted on the Russian’s music! Only at the end of the Mahler did I notice him sitting at the back of the first violins: he had sneaked in and played the whole symphony as part of the orchestra. Now that, almost more than the concerto, is a testament to his class and modesty

Simon Thompson

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