Runnicles Crowns Edinburgh Festival with Overwhelming yet Delicate Gurrelieder Finale

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United KingdomUnited Kingdom Edinburgh International Festival 2016 (15) – Schoenberg, Gurrelieder: Edinburgh Festival Chorus, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Donald Runnicles (conductor), Usher Hall, 28.8.2016. (SRT)

Schoenberg, Gurrelieder

Tove: Anja Kampe
Waldtaube: Karen Cargill
Waldemar: Simon O’Neill
Klaus the Fool: Anthony Dean Griffey
Peasant: Iain Paterson
Speaker: Thomas Quasthoff

Over the years, Donald Runnicles has often been the EIF’s go-to man for a big choral-orchestral blockbuster. After all, he made his debut with the BBC SSO in unforgettable performances of Berlioz’s Les Troyens in 2001, and more recently he has been a big festival finisher: I have indelible memories of his Mahler 8 in 2010 and his Verdi Requiem in 2013.

No longer. Tonight marked his final concert as Chief Conductor of the BBC Scottish, and there’s no bigger way to bow out than with Schoenberg’s mighty Gurrelieder. Indeed, it required removing several rows of seats and extending the stage just to get all the orchestral musicians squeezed onto the platform! It’s a sign of the esteem in which Runnicles is held, however, that both the orchestra and the festival decided to push the boat out for his final fling, and they ended up producing something very special and suitably epic in scale.

Runnicles is particularly well known for his interpretations of the core Austro-German Romantic repertoire, so Gurrelieder plays to his strengths. Under his baton Schoenberg’s ripe score yields up its influences. There is Wagner in the love music, of course, but also Bruckner in the solemnity of the Wood-Dove, Beethoven in the nature-painting and, of course, Mahler in the scale and structure. That scale could be pretty overpowering at times, and not just in the final, overwhelming greeting to the sun that ends the work. The sweep and surge of the love music was intoxicating, as was the wall of brass and percussion that accompanied the chorus’ romping as the hellish riders. What was most striking, however, was the way Runnicles repeatedly brought out the delicacy of the orchestration. Right at the opening, the piccolos twinkled and the back rows of violins shimmered as they evoked the twilight, and the cellos surged with dark mahogany tone during the love music. The eerie midnight music had magical tingles, and even the spectral, ugly scenes that preceded the Speaker’s section were transparent and clear.

It’s almost impossible in Gurrelieder for the singers entirely to avoid sounding overwhelmed but, for all that, Runnicles’ piloting of this massive ship was enormously sensitive to his soloists: you can tell that he runs an opera house too. The team was led by Simon O’Neill on the peak of his form, ringing with heroic clarity, cutting through the orchestral texture (most of the time) like a razor and avoiding the abrasiveness that has marred some of his performances in recent years. Opposite him, Anja Kampe made a sumptuous, lyrical Tove, combining the vocal power of an Isolde with the lyricism of a Sieglinde. Karen Cargill made for a darkly resonant Wood-Dove, and Iain Paterson sang a bluff, lyrical Peasant. Klaus the Jester is a thankless part that not even Anthony Dean Griffey could do much with, but having no less an artist than Thomas Quasthoff as the Speaker was luxury indeed. In fact, having this quality of line-up was a truly festive thing, and made for exactly the sort of extra special experience that an international arts festival of Edinburgh’s calibre should have.

Those are words that, a few years ago, I never thought I’d say, and it’s a testament to Fergus Linehan’s directorship that I’m able to say them now. At the press conference to launch this year’s festival (back in April) Linehan described the Usher Hall series as “the beating heart of the festival”, and that its concerts were the standard by which the festival should be judged. Amen to that, say I! Linehan’s background isn’t in high end classical music, but he is being given (and is listening to) good advice, and his two years in the job have impressed me mightily. He has expanded the range of the festival by including a whole new (very successful) strain of contemporary music, but the classical programme has not suffered in consequence. On the contrary: he has shot a bolt of electricity through it, particularly by inviting big names the like of which, not long ago, I thought simply wouldn’t come to Edinburgh any more. This year, for example, we’ve been graced by Cecilia Bartoli’s Norma, as well as massive international hitters like the Swedish Radio and Leipzig Gewandhaus orchestras, not to mention the stellar line ups of soloists at both the Usher and Queen’s Halls. The Edinburgh International Festival appears, to me, to be in finer health than it has been in a long time. Next year sees the 70th anniversary of its founding. What treats will Linehan and his team have in store for us then? Watch this space to find out.

This evening’s concert was recorded by BBC Radio 3 and will be broadcast on Friday 16th September.

Simon Thompson

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