It's been three years since Donald Runnicles last stepped onto the podium in the Usher Hall. In the intervening time his star has risen (including his appointment to Deutsche Oper Berlin) so you might have expected his return to be standing room only. Certainly on the basis of musical quality it should have been, however there were a surprising number of seats empty. Those who chose to be elsewhere missed out on something rather special.
In fairness, on the basis of the works selected, the programme didn't send a shiver down my spine when I first saw it. However, I've learnt to have a little faith in Runnicles' judgement and that faith was handsomely rewarded.
They began with Webern's Im Sommerwind, a piece I've only recently met through a live Jansons recording with the Bavarians. Runnicles' reading was something else, due in part to the inherently superior dynamics of a live performance over a recording. It was a beautifully textured reading, with an incredible lightness of touch. The orchestra played superbly, especially in the quieter moments (putting Zinman and his Tonhalle to shame). Principal flautist Rosemary Eliot played a very fine solo. Runnicles transitioned naturally between loud and soft. The result was atmospheric and vivid and an orchestral world that, in this early Webern, is not a million miles from Strauss.
Webern was followed by Brahms and his double concerto for cello and violin. The soloists were the relatively young Baiba Skride (violin) and Jan Vogler (cello, often showing his pedigree as a pupil of Heinrich Schiff), both were technically excellent but brought no shortage of emotion. They were also a very well balanced and complimentary pair, something that is not always the case and can be a pitfall in such works. Together with Runnicles' sensitive accompaniment, they made a powerful case for the concerto, finding the drama and yearning that eluded Zinman in his Brahms on Thursday. Runnicles never fell into the trap of heavy stodgy Brahms either. Instead we got a crisp reading, with the orchestra playing at their best.
After the interval came Strauss's Don Quixote. I can sometimes find Strauss's tone poems a little heavy or unengaging. Quixote isn't one I know, and in many ways I'd probably have preferred something like the Alpensinfonie. However, Runnicles had his reasons: the work took full advantage of Vogler's presence with its prominent part for solo cello, so much so it could almost be described as a concerto. He was complimented by principal violist Scott Dickinson who, representing Quixote's squire, has almost as prominent a role, and carried it of brilliantly. As with the Webern, it was exquisitely textured and coloured, vivid, no more so than with the sheep, and didn't drag as Strauss sometimes can. Much of the time Runnicles showed of his control of this fine orchestra, bringing a light touch. At others, he brought out the full excess of the orchestration, up to and including the double wind machines.
Of course, with any programmatic work, good notes are important. Tim Ashley's started off well enough, but after The Knight's Vigil (with particularly fine playing by Vogler) they largely gave up describing what was going on in the orchestra, only what action was being represented. This was unhelpful and meant I lost track and didn't catch up again until Quixote's death. Not that it mattered much, when there were such wonderful sounds to listen to, but it would have been nice to be sure which ones were The Ride through the Air, which The Voyage in the Enchanted Boat and which The Combat with the Two Sorcerers. But it wasn't enough to mar an exceptional evening of music.
The audience certainly agreed and loudly showed their appreciation. This is a partnership that will surely go on to do great things; together they can hold their own with the best orchestras in the world. Scotland is going to be an exciting place to live over the next few years. Those in Edinburgh who missed out will have another chance to hear them in action on 11th October when they perform the first symphonies of Beethoven and Mahler. It promises to be an unmissable even.
The concert was being taped for broadcast (however it doesn't appear on the Radio 3 page concerning the festival - I think the BBC may be planning a week of programming around Runnicles first concert as chief conductor in October, that would also explain why we've yet to hear February's Symphony Fantastique). If the BBC are reading this, how about sharing some broadcast dates.
One final note - it appears I was inaccurate when I berated the Usher Hall staff for not putting up signs in the dress circle to indicate which doors are for which numbers. Indeed they have put up temporary signs printed on paper. However, with a level of incompetence that frankly beggars belief, these have been positioned such that they are effectively obscured when the doors are opened.
Tonight's programme had dropped from £3.50 to £3, perhaps because no text or translation was involved. Though it still seems an awful lot for fourteen pages.
Apparently, there were other reasons for the choice of programme, namely that Don Quixote and Vogler were both due to appear last year in the Dresden Staatskapelle concert for which the orchestra arrived but the instruments didn't.