Monday, 28 April 2008

Here's Runnicles (or Where's Runnicles meets Runnicles)

We've used this title before, for a post six months ago following the glorious announcement that Donald Runnicles was taking over the role of Chief Conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra from the 2009 season. The more eagle eyed among you will remember that this post caught the attention of Stephen Duffy, the orchestra's marketing manager. Well, another pleasant surprise awaited as I returned from work on Tuesday: Stephen had e-mailed to invite us to the concert Runnicles was giving on Thursday, his first with the orchestra since the announcement. Of course, needless to say I had bought my ticket as far back as last June and unfortunately Finn was unable to attend. Better still:

At the end of the concert, we’re having a “meet and greet” with Donald, the players of the BBC SSO and our audience, It’d be a pleasure to meet you both there, and introduce you to the man himself.

Of course, this sort of situation is intrinsically quite dangerous - the higher the expectations the greater the potential for disappointment. Fortunately though, I don't have to write that kind of a review. Before starting, Runnicles turned to the audience and gave a brief speech, mentioning how good it was to be in this jewel of a concert hall and playing with this jewel of an orchestra. He also drew some parallels between the two works in the programme: MacMillan's 3rd Symphony 'Silence' (receiving its Scottish premier) and Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde. In particular, he mentioned the importance of silence in both works and both composers' use of textures. This was doubly interesting for me since this is the first time I've heard Runnicles perform a programme: all the previous concerts I have attended have been of single works: Verdi's Requiem, Mahler's 3rd symphony, Bruckner's 6th and Wagner's Gotterdammerung. He mentioned that nobody quite knows why some partnerships between orchestra and conductor work and others don't, but that this one had been special and he looked forward to the future. We couldn't agree more.

I'm not sure I've heard much MacMillan before, and not least for that reason I'm hesitant in passing judgement. Like hearing any work for the first time, well, any that isn't completely awful, I wanted to go back and listen again, it's impossible to take everything in on the first pass. However, MacMillan (and doubtless Runnicles) uses pauses powerfully in the work. There is also at times a wonderful sense of cacophony mixed with order. I know that makes no sense, since the two are essentially opposite, but that is the only way I can describe the sound that several times they managed to produce. And quite something it was. Similarly the several smaller, low, throbbing climaxes in the work. Sonically this work is a showcase for an orchestra, and under Runnicles the BBC Scottish played magnificently. The work has some wonderful textures, which for me highlighted its suitability as a partner to Mahler, whose genius for orchestration is one of his key strengths. Certainly it is an interesting piece, I enjoyed it very much and I will listen to the broadcast. At the same time, I didn't quite feel swept away by it, nor in the presence of greatness as I did with the Ades violin concerto last summer. If I have one reservation, and this is splitting hairs, I have said before many times that one aspect of Runnicles' genius is his gift for instrumental placement (be it the horn in the foyer outside the Grand Circle in the Usher Hall for Mahler 3 or the brass arrayed in every nook and cranny of the Albert Hall for Gotterdammerung and even in the general orchestral layout for Bruckner 6). However, such was the scale of the orchestration that the platform was actually a little crowded and there was no room, so to speak, for his skills in this regard to shine forth. That's not to say there was anything wrong, just nothing to take one's breath away.

Following the interval came the treat. I've waxed lyrical about the 2005 performance of Mahler's 3rd symphony more times than I can count. The more so since my computer died that summer meaning I was unable to capture the broadcast. This is compounded by the absence of Mahler from Runnicles' discography. Orchestrally the performance was superb. Rich and detailed, with some of the finest playing I have yet heard from this orchestra. It was a performance that made me question why on earth this work is so often skipped when a conductor surveys the symphonies because, and let's face it, Das Lied is a symphony in all but name, had it not been for a superstition that, like so many composers before him, he would die after nine, this would surely now be known as Mahler's 9th. Runnicles and the BBC SSO provided a real orchestral tour de force, whether the playing loudly, softly, with passion, fast or slow. He also achieved a wonderful balance with the percussion. Pauses were held to magnificent effect. It was something to hear. Indeed, I am tempted to say that, orchestrally, this is the finest reading of the work I have heard, be it on CD or in the concert hall.

Tenor Simon O'Neill was appearing as a last minute stand-in for an indisposed Johan Botha. His performance should therefore be seen in this context and I will not judge too harshly. However, he did not ride over the orchestra as clearly as I would have liked and, personally, I found his voice to have a slightly harsh, nasal tone. I did wonder for a moment whether Runnicles was to blame, swamping his singer, but Karen Cargill's performance soon put paid to that. Anyone has a difficult job convincing me in this role. I am, like many others, wedded to the Kathleen Ferrier reading (with Bruno Walter and the Vienna Philharmonic), as I am to Ferrier in so much Mahler. (On a side note, those of a similar disposition will be pleased to know that a release of Mahler 3 featuring her, and conducted by Boult, is soon to appear on Testament. The link is to MDT not Testament only because their website has more detail.) Cargill isn't Ferrier, obviously, who is? And yet, she comes as close at chilling the listener as I have heard (afterwards Runnicles described it as having a direct line to the listener's heart, I can't explain it better).

Runnciles, orchestra and soloists received a rapturous reception. It must be noted that the hall wasn't quite full (as it was for Brendel in February). Quite why was a mystery to me, those who missed this missed a treat.

Afterwards, proceedings adjourned to the bar. I found myself sitting with Andrew Clark (a very nice journalist from the FT, find his review here) and a flute/picalo player from the orchestra. Gavin Reid, the orchestra's Director, interviewed Runnicles briefly. He talked about his formative years in Germany and Austria, and his consequent experience in Viennese repertoire. He had a lovely story about a recent performance of Strauss's Rosenkavalier he had given with the Vienna State Opera, with no rehearsal. So steeped are they in this music that requesting one would be a sure-fire way to never work with them again. In particular he mentioned a their playing of the waltz and how he wished he could have bottled it up to carry around with him.

Reid next asked him about another post he had taken up, in somewhere called Berlin (as the Music Director at Deutsche Oper Berlin). After a brief explanation of the three houses in Berlin (ah, for only one properly funded one in Scotland), he contrasted the main difference between this and SF Opera where he has been for over a decade. SF, the most beautiful city in the world [Edinburgh, surely. Ed.] turns over a large number of new productions meaning that once a run of seven or eight performances is over and everyone is just getting settled, that's it for a good few years. Berlin is a repertory house, so productions come back year after year. Clearly he is looking forward to this.

He then thanked both singers in effusive terms, noting just how proud Scotland should be of its artists. Take note, SNP, if you really want cultural independence, the funding to match is required. He also had a nice story about Rattle attending the Gotterdammerung rehearsals for last year's Proms as he himself was preparing the work for Aix. Indeed, Rattle was apparently so impressed with Cargill that he got on the phone to the festival and demanded they secure her.

He gave very little away about what we might expect from his first season as Chief Conductor. However, he did let slip that he would like to do something from Rosenkavalier (that will certainly get Finn's attention, if nothing else). It sounded more like exerts than a full concert performance, however, given Runnicles' pedigree in the Opera House, might I suggest going down just that path: let us have some full concert operas from the BBC Scottish in the 2009/10 season. He also talked about his commitment to new music: he did, after all, give the American premiere of Messiaen's St Francis (something we're heading to Amsterdam to see staged in June) as well as the world premier of Adams' recent opera Dr Atomic (about Dr Robert Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project). Indeed, he talked about his links to Adams so I suspect we can expect some of his music: how about Dr Atomic in concert, I'm sure Runnicles will conduct it better than whomever brings it to ENO.

I had the chance to have a chat with Stephen Duffy. He again mentioned that they were looking to expand their season into Edinburgh, though the ongoing Usher Hall problems don't help. And even if that were not an issue, the Usher Hall isn't really ideal for them: audiences here are quite conservative and I suspect they'd have a job selling out some of their programmes (though having the local boy conducting would doubtless help). Really, we need a third concert hall in Edinburgh, a brick by brick reconstruction of the City Halls. However, given the current budgetary position, I think it more likely that I will see pigs flying past my window (a feat that would be doubly impressive since it is dark and the curtains are drawn). He talked about some future plans for the orchestra, including a possible performance of Messiaen's Des Canyons aux etoiles. A sublime and spiritual work, magnificently performed at the 2006 Festival by de Leeuw and the Netherlands Youth Orchestra, I sincerely hope this comes to pass.

Stephen then introduced me to the eponymous maestro, who answered the question first posed at the end of this post: he hasn't stumbled across our humble blog. I gave the brief explanation of the name and I think he was a little taken aback. I thanked him for a fine concert and asked him for his autograph (he signed my copy of his recording of Beethoven's 9th symphony on Telarc with the Atlanta Symphony - apparently the surround sound version is interesting, he said they had a lot of fun recording it - which will probably be the next disc to feature in our discography, not least because I don't think I did a very good job explaining to him why I like it so much). Still, if he wants to see some more cogent praise, he has only to click here. I also took the opportunity to praise the horn placement in Mahler's 3rd symphony and thank him for one of the most sublime evenings I've ever spent in the concert hall, something I have wanted to do for nearly three years.

All in all, a fantastic night. The concert is being broadcast on Monday 28th April at 7pm on BBC Radio 3. Those who can get to it, should head to the Albert Hall on Sunday 3rd August where Runnicles, Cargill, Botha and the BBC Scottish will be playing Das Lied again as part of the BBC Proms, only this time paired with Beethoven's first symphony. I can't make it, so the wireless will have to suffice. Beyond that, Runnicles isn't due back to perform in Scotland until 19th February 2009 when he will play Adams' Slonimsky's Earbox, Ravel's concerto for piano left hand and Berlioz's symphony fantastique. In the meantime it's CDs, the radio or expensive air fares (we were recently offered tickets to hear him do Berlioz's Requiem with the Berlin Philharmonic in May, sadly the combination of fares and dates couldn't be made to work).

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