Runnicles Returns to Scotland with Magnificent Mozart and Mahler Performances

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mozart, Mahler: Carolyn Sampson (soprano), BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Donald Runnicles (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 6.11.2016. (SRT)

Mozart: Exultate Jubilate K.165; Symphony in D, K.196/K.121; ‘Voi avete un cor Fedele’ K.217
Mahler: Symphony No.4

He may have just stood down as Chief Conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, but we’d hardly had time to move on from Donald Runnicles before his face began to reappear on big posters outside the Usher Hall, and this concert sees his first return to the orchestra since his mighty Gurrelieder that closed the 2016 Edinburgh International Festival.

For all of his identification with the core Austro-German repertoire, I don’t think I’ve heard Runnicles conducting Mozart before, barring a stirring 2013 performance of Robert Levin’s realisation of the Requiem. To go from that to these early gems is a bit of a leap, but Runnicles pays the music the great compliment of taking it seriously, something that particularly helped the early D major symphony. Conceived in connection with the opera La Finta Giardiniera, it sounds uncommonly lush and very beguiling when played by a full symphony orchestra, as here, with modern strings and a warm sound that’s very inviting, particularly in the central Andantino.

That was also true elsewhere in the first half. You don’t normally hear the evergreen motet Exultate Jubilate complimented first for its orchestral sound, but I was quite swept away by the string tone of the slow movement, its modern performers revealing things you rarely notice elsewhere. That’s not to do down the pearly contribution of the ever-dependable Carolyn Sampson, however, whose gleaming, versatile voice brought both energy and sparkle to Mozart’s youthful masterpiece. The agile runs of the concluding Alleluia were a good taster for the (sometimes anachronistically showy) coloratura of the aria ‘Voi avete un cor fedele’. However, she was every bit as warm in the slower sections of the aria, which Mozart wrote for insertion into a 1775 performance of an opera by Baldassare Galuppi.

Sampson was back for the last movement of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, of course, and she sang it with all the wide-eyed innocence and purity of tone that the composer must, surely, have had in mind when we wrote that it must be sung “in a happy childlike manner.”  It was a fitting culmination to a reading that repeatedly had me marvelling at the variety Runnicles managed to conjure from the score.  The first movement began with the whimsical, sugary warmth that the first theme really needs, but the darkness began to gather soon, and by the end Runnicles was combining different moods and colours like a collage artist.  The BBC SSO strings, who came on in leaps and bounds under his leadership, sounded magnificent here, and were even finer in the slow, luxurious third movement, which had me repeatedly wondering whether this was actually the most beautiful thing Mahler ever wrote.  I actually enjoyed the Scherzo most, though, with its skirling clarinets and its refusal to settle into a particular frame.  A special gold star to leader Laura Samuel, who played Death’s fiddle solo with more gusto and enthusiasm than I think I’ve ever heard, and whose stylish flashes of insight repeatedly had me chuckling to myself.

Runnicles now takes on a position as the orchestra’s Conductor Emeritus.  Let’s hope we continue to see him regularly.

Simon Thompson

Leave a Comment