Donald Runnicles masterminds a revelatory Bruckner Eighth in Glasgow

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Dutilleux, Bruckner: Carolyn Sampson (soprano), BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra / Donald Runnicles (conductor). City Halls Glasgow, 27.2.2020. (GT)

Donald Runnicles (c) Robert Kusel

Dutilleux Correspondances

Bruckner – Symphony No.8 in C minor (1890)

The performance of a symphony by Bruckner is a comparatively rare event in this city, and to include a piece by a modernist French composer is another reason that made this concert exceptional. The return of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra’s former principal conductor Donald Runnicles was yet another reason for the capacity audience.

Dutilleux wrote his set of orchestral songs (Correspondances) from material by Rilke, Mukherjee, Solzhenitsyn, and Van Gogh in 2002/2003 and also reflects on his friendship with Rostropovich and Vishnevskaya. Seemingly ‘The initial idea behind this work was to make a selection of letters from various authors that would create opportunities for different forms of lyrical expression by a solo soprano voice and large symphonic orchestra.’

In the opening setting to Rilke’s Gong 1, ‘Timbre qui n’est plus…’ the soprano voice of Carolyn Sampson was in sultry harmony, with a poised intimacy as if we were interloping on private thoughts. This was dissolved before the huge orchestra entered in the ‘Danse Cosmique’ setting to something from Prithwindra Mukherjee. The low tapped strikes on the timpani created a bewitching ambience, with Helen Thomson on the harp contributing magically to the mood. In ‘A Slava et Galina’ based on Solzhenitsyn, there was some excellent string playing, and a strident evocation from Andrew Duncan’s tuba, and colourful harmonies from the accordion of Ilona Suomalainen, quoting the Holy Fool’s lament for Mother Russia from Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov. The solo violin of Laura Samuel was masterly in a beautifully played soliloquy, with Runnicles maintaining a perfect balance between the singer and orchestra. In the culminating ‘De Vincent à Théo’ letter, there was a dusky chill, like a summer evening in Van Gogh’s painting Starry Night. Throughout this stunningly colourful piece Carolyn Sampson sang magnificently, sometimes high, sometimes barely voiced; in all a masterly performance accompanied by the conductor with aplomb.

This orchestra under Donald Runnicles gave a remarkable performance of Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony at the BBC Proms back in 2011, and the audience was expectant. With the stage enlarged to allow for more musicians the performance and acoustic was now closer to the centre of the hall. It is three years since Bruckner’s Eighth was last heard in Glasgow, in a performance by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra of a new version by the Canadian musicologist Paul Hawkshaw and conducted by Peter Oundjian. Here the BBC SSO performed the revised version by Nowak, based upon the composer’s revision of 1890 and there are two alterations in the climax of the Adagio, and in the coda of the opening movement. These have the effect of darkening the imagery of the symphony, and as Stephen Johnson writes, ‘it’s as though the cathedral architect had curtained or bricked up two great windows.’

Following the fleeting intonation by the woodwind, the Allegro moderato opened strongly on the low strings with the darkly probing idea on the basses, while the violins introduced the secondary theme with the characteristic Brucknerian rhythmic pulse. This brought a mood of consolation before the brass announced an idea of grim foreboding and momentous feelings, interceded by eloquent and wary calls from the woodwind and the horns. The marvellous string playing combined with the magnificent and strident brass was sometimes out of this world. The opening movement of this symphony revealed a freshness and a virtuosity not often heard here from this orchestra. The Scherzo is supposed to portray a plain, honest rural German – ‘Deutscher Michel’ – perhaps best characterised in the brisk and energetic passage at the end of the movement. The drama was overwhelmingly powerful, moving like a locomotive through the countryside. There were lovely nuances from the flute of Charlotte Ashton, with the violins building the momentum further. A captivating moment arrived when the horn of Alberto Menéndez Escribano’s invoked the first theme recalling the composer’s own Fourth Symphony, while the strings with the tremolo motif suggested restful slumber. Schubertian song was intimated in the main theme of the Trio, and before the close, the entrance of the three harps offered a glimpse of heaven.

In the great Adagio, the initial idea from the violins induced the feeling of great emotional longing, once again Bruckner invokes the melancholy motif from Schubert’s The Wanderer – ‘the sun is cold to me … I am a stranger everywhere.’ Once more the three harps brought a wonderful divine harmony to the heart-rending music. The horn playing of Escribano once more was spectacular. The sorrowful yet animated strings recalled the duet from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde ‘Sink upon us, night of love’ bringing some of the most lovingly tender music of the whole symphony, all of which was beautifully played by the strings. The clash of cymbals twice over brought this passage to a close with the return of the opening noble, but poignant, motif with the harps once more adding a more reflective nuance.

The Finale: Feierlich, nicht schnell, was suitably stormy, with the huge brass section triumphantly eradicating the depth of sadness of the great Adagio. Runnicles was impressive in masterminding the brisk tempo, maintaining his musicians grasp of this huge work. The battle of ideas succumbed when the themes from the preceding movements entered on the violins, and again before the timpanist Gordon Rigby announced the coda ever so slightly. There emerged a magnificent crescendo in darkly lit colours, and the trumpets and timpani momentously quoted the motif of the Scherzo before a glorious blazing C major tonality with all four themes uniting in a splendidly fine culmination.

Runnicles is one of the finest interpreters of the Germanic repertoire, this was a fine occasion once again to witness the magnificent sweep of his baton and hear such magnificent playing of such a great romantic symphony. This was a tremendous concert of two ostensibly contrasting works, but united by a vision of the universe in cosmic terms.

Gregor Tassie

1 thought on “Donald Runnicles masterminds a revelatory Bruckner Eighth in Glasgow”

  1. An excellent review. I have been a Bruckner fanatic for around forty years now and my passionate love for these symphonies has never waned.

    I listened to this performance on R3 and one could almost feel the City Halls in Glasgow shake with the raw power of it all. The playing by all sections of the orchestra was well-nigh perfect and, yes, the brass will always get the main plaudits in any Bruckner symphony but how those strings and woodwinds also have to work to create this amazing and unique sound. Even without seeing one could sense the conductor was totally involved and immersed in the work by the very evidence of our ears.

    The preceding Dutilleux showed imaginatively refreshing programming and was such a pleasant change from the now usual Mozart piano concerto pairing.

    My only regret is that I had not been in the City Halls in person to witness this wonderful concert!


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