I've been looking forward to this concert for some time. Two years in fact, long before the programme was even announced. However, it really is that long since it was announced that Donald Runnicles would take over as Chief Conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. Given that one of the first things I head them do together back in 2005 was Mahler's third symphony, the news that his first concert in post would feature the first symphony was fantastic. Best of all, for the first time, the orchestra are venturing over to Edinburgh for some regular season concerts, albeit only two.
Earlier in the week, the concert was bafflingly undersold. True, the Usher Hall hadn't been selling it as hard as they might or should, and yes, Edinburgh audiences aren't used to the BBC Scottish coming outside of the festival, but baffling none the less. Come Sunday, however, while the Upper Circle had been closed, both the Stalls and the Grand Circle were pleasingly packed.
In a theme of new beginnings, the programme led off with another first symphony, this time Beethoven's. The last time I heard it was also in the Usher Hall, but under the baton of Charles Mackerras, a tough act to follow. Where the octogenarian was light and witty, Runnicles took a different tack, a slower and more romantic one, filled with weight and drama. It was nicely played and finely controlled, the opening of the slow movement especially, where Runnicles, in a series of broad gestures, almost like brush strokes on a canvas, built up the orchestra sound. There was a wonderful energy to both the menuetto and the finale. A fine curtain raiser then.
Beethoven was followed Berg and his Seven Early Songs. They were joined by Heidi Melton, doubtless known to Runnicles from her days in the San Francisco Opera young artists programme. She sang nicely, her voice having a good tone and no excess of vibrato. Runnicles proved a fine accompanist, as ever, never crowding out her voice, and bringing out some wonderful textures in the orchestration. It's only a shame the Usher Hall didn't think to put up the house lights so that we could read the text (this is typical of the hall's staff, and baffling - it's not rocket science).
Then came the meat. The playing of the quiet opening passages of the Mahler was, if anything, thinner and more delicate than I would have imagined possible. In typical Runnicles style, the off-stage trumpet fanfares were balanced wonderfully. I'd spotted the camera to cue them lurking in the organ gallery during the first half. If I'd been using my brain I would have put to and two together during the interval regarding the TV screen and music stands outside the doors to the Grand Circle. I'm glad I didn't, as it made for a nice surprise. A few fluffed entries early on were soon washed away in the extraordinary sound of the movement's climaxes. From there on in things only improved with a dynamic and exciting second movement, Runnicles often exerting his control with minimal gestures. Following the current fashion, he elected to play the "Frere Jacques" bass theme at the start of the third movement with all the basses rather than as a solo. I wasn't convinced by it when Harding did it recently and I'm still not. As was the case then, it's not that basses played badly, they didn't - just that with a solo you get something much more powerful with more character, this would have been especially true given the presence of Nicholas Bayley as principal (a recent move from that post with the SCO). However, it is a minor splitting of hairs about a brief part of the movement, which was in general superb. It was followed by a simply awesome finale. In a series of climaxes Runnicles each time unleashed more force than before, and more than you might have imagined was left in reserve. The sheer walls of sound produced were incredible. Yet, it wasn't all volume. Indeed, here, as elsewhere, Runnicles gave us Mahler riven with contrast, from extreme pianissimo to double forte in a hair's breadth. In the closing moments, nothing was spared in an effort to maximise the drama, as the eight horns were brought to their feet.
It was glorious, and rapturously received. Those Edinburgh bound will have to wait until March for the next visit, when Christine Brewer will be on hand to sing. Those of us willing to catch the train have only to wait until Thursday when they do Daphnis et Chloe in Glasgow. I'll certainly be there.
If you're further afield still, or inexplicably missed the concert, you can catch the BBC2 Broadcast of the Mahler here and the whole thing is on Monday's Performance on 3.
Only one question remains: can we have Mahler's other nine symphonies now please?