You go years without regular Runnicles concerts in Scotland and then, all of a sudden, two in the space of five days. No matter that the second necessitated a dash across to Glasgow; it is, after all, always pleasant to experience the superb acoustic of City Halls.
They kicked off the evening with James MacMillan's The Confession of Isobel Gowdie, effectively a requiem for a woman killed for witchcraft in Nairn in 1662. The piece was premiered by the orchestra back in 1990 and, as the programme notes, has become "a long established BBC SSO party piece". In some was, perhaps, a slightly unfortunate wording, and yet, musically it certainly is just that. From the slow, lyrical and haunting string theme at the start, to the huge chord, repeated thirteen times (doubtless symbolising the thirteen 'witches' in the coven), it is an astonishingly vivid composition. It requires impressive playing too, particularly in the work's frenzied climaxes, and the orchestra more than rose to the occasion; the trombone parts seemed particularly tricky but were carried off superbly. The string theme returns again at the end, punctuated by explosions from wind and brass, and builds to an ultimately uplifting finale in the face of such horror. All told, a wonderful orchestral tour de force.
MacMillan was followed by Mozart and the K503 piano concerto. As ever, it seems a slight shame that out of more than twenty concerti, we get so few programmed with any regularity; as ever, my favourites don't lurk amongst the most popular. However, it's always nice to get any Mozart concerto. The pianist on hand was Shia Wosner, fresh from performing K491 with the same team at the Proms. Certainly his playing was very delicate, and there was not the hint of any thumping in sight. However, and I never imagined I might say this, it was if anything a little too polite for much of the opening movement, right down to the way Wosner kept wiping they keys. Behind this Runnicles provided solid and punchy accompaniment. Yet, interestingly, not clashing with Wosner as might be expected from such descriptions. It was only with the cadenza that Wosner really opened up, showed some personality and started to win me over. From there on in, things were superb, with an especially sublime slow movement and a well judged finale. Certainly Wosner would seem to be one to watch.
After the interval, they closed with Ravel's Daphnis et Chloe, not simply a suite therefrom, but the complete ballet score. As such, it's perhaps a little surprising that the hall wasn't completely packed out for this comparative concert rarity. The more so given it featured a rare out of season collaboration with the Festival Chorus. I've never heard the full score before but it was astonishing. Runnicles inspired stunning and world class playing from the orchestra, illuminating Ravel's varied and wonderfully coloured orchestration. He exerted tight control, taking the audience, seemingly effortlessly, from sublime beauty to climaxes every bit as frenzied as the MacMillan, especially during the warriors' dance and finale. Such was the calibre of the playing, lacking any weak link, that it would be both difficult and unfair to single anyone out. Amidst all this the Festival Chorus, singing without words, provided an additional instrument. Yes, there are not enough men, as too often is the case these days, but there was a wonderful sound none the less. All involved thoroughly deserved the loud cheers they received.
It was particularly good to see the chorus in action outside of festival time. I hope Runnicles continues this. I've often felt that it might be able to draw a bigger pool of singers if it sang the year round. If you're a man, can sing, and are reading this, please sign up.
A minor reservation concerns the ushers who seemed to be on loan from the Festival Theatre (whose staff are notoriously bad in this regard). People kept being let in mid-movement, to loudly clomp loudly along the wooden floors to their seats (including one who made his way to the his mid-row seat during the Mozart, whispering constant apologies as he went). It isn't rocket science: you don't admit late comers until a suitable break (that means between works).
Sadly, that's it from Runnicles until January, when we can look forward to a mix of Wagner and Bruckner's eight symphony. I, for one, can't wait. In the meantime, broadcast is due on Radio Scotland on 1st November, and subsequently on Radio 3.