It was very sad when, earlier this year, fate robbed us of the chance to hear Donald Runnicles conduct the LSO in a programme of Wagner, Strauss and Mahler. Fortunately, nothing came between us and his final appearance with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra prior to becoming their music director.
The programme was somewhat eclectic, leading off with Slonimsky's Earbox by John Adams. In his pre-concert talk with the orchestra's director Gavin Reid (of which more in a subsequent post), Runnicles discussed his collaborations with the composer, most notably on the premiere of the opera Dr Atomic. It's clear he has an affinity with the composer, so hopefully we'll hear more next season. Tonight's work is named after a Russian, one of whose claims to fame is the authorship of the exhaustive Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns. Runnicles remarked that Adams' work is often deceptively difficult, in that it sounds much simpler to play than it actually is. Slonimsky's Earbox sounded difficult and the orchestra played with fiendish and impressive dexterity.
The scales permeated the work, and yet not in a way that was intrusive or overly intellectual, but rather feeling completely natural. Runnicles struck a nice balance between volume in the climaxes and delicacy in other moments. Perhaps what marked the piece most was Adams' beautiful textures, notably his use of percussion and an electronic sampler. It's always difficult to judge a new work after just one hearing, but a good test is whether you want to hear more and, personally, I can't wait for the broadcast. Principal viola Scott Dickinson played particularly beautifully, and it's nice to have the instrument brought so much to the fore for a change, and Runnicles rightly brought him to his feet at the end.
There was a brief pause while the stage was rearranged for the piano concerto, but no ordinary piano concerto: this was Ravel's concerto for piano (left hand) and orchestra in D major. It is a work I was dimly aware of, having heard it mentioned by Leon Fleisher in various interviews (Fleisher was for many years unable to use his right hand as a result of dystonia, something he has only recently regained via injections of botox). It turns out there is an interesting repertoire for left hand, owing partly to Paul Wittgenstein, brother of the famous philosopher, who lost his right arm in the first world war. Thereafter he turned his attention to increasing the material available, and one of the fruits of this was Ravel's concerto. Pianist Adam Golka was playing left hand repertoire through choice, though it is interesting, and doubtless not co-incidental, to note that he is currently studying with Fleisher. His right hand, alternately resting on his knee or gripping the edge of the keyboard, looked like it desperately wanted to be swept up into the music too.
Now, I often, in common with many members of my family, say I don't really like Ravel. A friend sometimes remarks on this to the effect that we say it, and then after a performance say that was the exception. I'm beginning to think there is something in this and that what I mean is that I don't like Bolero (except when Jacques Loussier and his trio play it). Either way, I certainly liked the concerto. It has a dark and ominous orchestral opening, superbly played, and the first entry of the piano complements this. Indeed, for a significant time the left hand stays on the lower half of the keyboard, and this in itself makes for an effect quite unlike what one is used to for a concerto. But, as the piece develops, it gets a full outing, and an impressive workout. Golka's playing was excellent, and not a million miles from Paul Lewis in terms of an ability to find no shortage of power and force without recourse to overly-percussive thumping. Runnicles and the orchestra provided excellent and sensitive accompaniment, only crowding out the pianist in the bigger climaxes, as the composer surely intended. All in all, it was a superbly compelling performance and left me wanting to know the work better. The programme recommends a recording with Zimerman, Boulez and the Cleveland Orchestra, but I think I shall plump for Fleisher in Boston, it seems somehow right.
After the interval it was the turn of Hector Berlioz and his Symphonie Fantastique. Now, this is also a work I've never managed to fully engage with in the past. I don't think I've ever heard it in concert and neither of my CDs (Davis on LSO Live and Dutoit in Montreal) have ever quite grabbed me. However, one of the things I so admire about Runnicles is his ability to give me a fresh perspective on a piece. As I left the auditorium for the interval I had heard one person remarking that he wouldn't stay for the second half as he'd heard the piece live several times and it hadn't grabbed him either. Sure enough, when everyone else returned, there were two gaps in front of me. In light of what followed, more fool them would seem to be something of an understatement.
Things started well enough, and the daydreams of the first movement were eerie and nicely evocative. However, it was in the second movement that things became truly magical. The programme describes the ball as "a glittering scene" and glitter and sparkle and dance is precisely what the music did in his hands. It was playful and beautiful and called to mind a something Runnicles said in a talk he gave after his last concert with the orchestra, following the Vienna State Opera's playing of a waltz in Rosenkavalier and how he'd wished he could have bottled it up to carry around with him. I now know exact what he meant.
The pastoral scene was even more special. Principal oboe Stella McCracken played her solo beautifully and was then complemented by Timothy Rundle from somewhere in the ether. It was only then that I noticed he wasn't sitting in the orchestra anymore. A glance around showed the stage right door to the artists' area fractionally ajar and it is doubtless from somewhere back there that he played. I have written before about Runnicles' genius for such effects of instrumental placement and this was no exception, every bit as special as the horn in Mahler's third or the brass in Gotterdammerung. Similarly, the menacing thunder provided by the no fewer than four timpanists. The whole thing was beautifully textured and there was a real sorrow to McCracken's final unanswered oboe calls. The march to the scaffold which followed was nothing short of electrifying in its drama.
My brother heard the work in Vienna a few months back from Abbado and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra and complained that the final movement, and, indeed, the performance as a whole, was somewhat tame and lacked bite. Not so here. The closing witches sabbath was grotesque (in a good way) and full of a sense of the macabre that makes me long to hear what Runnicles might make of Mahler's seventh symphony. There were wonderfully muted horn effects and eerily sliding trombones. Then the stage door opened again, this time one half all the way, and from there the church bells tolled. But it lent them a dark and unsettling effect that, in concert with the answering dies irae theme on the brass, was nothing short of jaw-dropping. The hectic witches dance was led to a thrilling close. Throughout the playing of the orchestra was exceptional, so much so that Runnicles spent some time bringing each section individually to their feet. They all deserved it.
It's often an interesting question what distinguishes a very good performance from something truly great. I think this concert shows that distinction perfectly: the first half was excellent, but there was some greater magic at work after the interval.
As a post concert coda Golka was to play some two-handed Chopin. I didn't stay, not because I think it wouldn't have been wonderful, I'm sure it would (indeed, I would very much like to hear him again in other repertoire), but I didn't want any more notes in my head, I wanted to end the night there. Also, there was a train to catch. Hopefully, we'll get some concerts from the orchestra over in Edinburgh next season; certainly, from what I hear, this is on the cards (and maybe the Council could find a few million to build us our own City Halls; don't hold your breath on that one). The concert is due for broadcast, when isn't yet clear, but as soon as we know, we'll flag it up: it is one to be marked as unmisable.
It was only a slight shame that one man couldn't wait for the final chords of the Berlioz to die away completely before exclaiming an orgasmic yes! It's hard to be too critical of him though, I know exactly what he meant; from the loud cheers that greeted the performance, I don't think I was alone.