Friday 22 January 2010

He cannot choose but hear, Runnicles hath his will - the BBC SSO play Wagner and Bruckner

A friend whom I ran into at last night's concert asked me afterwards how on earth I was going to write a review. It was a good question. Terrible things are pretty easy to review: you sit there getting crosser and crosser, making mental notes of all the clever things you can say later. When something is out of this world good, it's another matter. You don't want to be making a mental list of anything, lest you miss the magic that is going on in front of you. Then there's the vexed question of how in words you can possibly hope to sum up such a transcending experience, as the best artistic performances are, that takes you out of the concert hall, theatre, or opera house, to somewhere else entirely. Last night's concert from Donald Runnicles and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra was one of the very greatest it has been my privilege to attend, and what follows is a pale shadow of an attempt to describe it.

The evening paired Wagner and Bruckner, a natural choice given the extent to which the latter idolised the former, however the choice of works was, perhaps, not the most obvious one. Runnicles presented the Siegfried Idyll in its most paired down, spartan orchestration, with solo strings. Indeed, I've rarely seen such small forces from the SCO, let alone the BBCSSO. The decision was justified by the detail and characterisation of the resulting performances as, in tricky and exposed parts, they acquitted themselves superbly. Runnicles take was light, airy, etherial; it was a thing of great beauty and of a scale where one could readily imagine the musicians being assembled to play it to the composer's wife. Yet at the same time I couldn't help but remember a recent Composer of the Week on Wagner which illustrated just how horrible he'd been to his first wife, not only cheating on her but then, when she called him on it, writing to tell her she was an awful and untrusting wife but that he forgave her for it. It was a strange irony. Still, it's the music not the man, and the music was lovely. It was also a particularly nice treat as we were robbed of hearing Runnicles do it at the 2006 Edinburgh Festival when new airline security rules kept the Orchestra of St Luke's out of the country.

All well and good then, but the Bruckner eighth that followed was something else altogether. There was not simply the glorious playing of the orchestra, but there were the incredible contrasts Runnicles provided between the mighty climaxes and the extreme pianissimos, so much so that even with the full orchestra he managed to recall the feeling of the first half's chamber ensemble. And yet it wasn't the unconnected series of repeated climaxes that Bruckner becomes in the wrong hands, instead it grew organically each time, fading away just as naturally again afterwards. This sense of structure permeated the reading which, at a little under an hour and a half, felt neither slow nor rushed but just right.

It wasn't just the thrilling fury in the opening of the finale. It wasn't just the tiny details Runnicles was able to tease out of the orchestra, or those magical moments that occur when a real chemistry exists between conductor and ensemble, such as one where he appeared to be almost pulling the music out of them like a thread. It wasn't just the glorious walls of sound they created, from the rich strings to the roaring brass, sweet winds and fine timpanic punctuation. It wasn't just that when the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra play for him, this already fine ensemble becomes the equal of just about any on the planet. It was all of that, and so much more. It was enough to take your breath away.

As Runnicles lowered his baton at the close of the first movement and a few people coughed or shifted in their seats, I found myself quite unable to move. I couldn't help thinking of the lines from The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner:

He holds him with his glittering eye -
The Wedding-Guest stood still,
And listens like a three years' child:
The Mariner hath his will.

The Wedding-Guest sat on a stone:
He cannot choose but hear;
And thus spake on that ancient man,
The bright-eyed Mariner.

I don't think that I've ever, in my varied and compulsive concert going, had the music quite do that to me, at least not to that extent. Yet I was rooted to my comfortable seat as surely as the mariner to his stone: Runnicles had my will and I could not chose but hear as time and again the emotions he found in the music threatened to overwhelm. It was utterly compelling, draining and exhausting. It was astonishingly, out of this world, devastatingly good. It was the kind of performance that makes you need a drink in all the right ways. It was, pretty well indescribable; certainly I don't think it's within my powers to get closer than this, which only scratches the surface. Where was Runnicles? To the naked eye he was on the podium, to the ear and heart he was somewhere else altogether, fortunately he took us away with him.

As we left the concert hall we each looked at the other, neither knowing quite what to say. I can think of only one thing: more, please!

Then again, as someone who shall remain nameless remarked afterwards, it did nothing for him. But then Bruckner is one of those marmite composers. If you fall into my camp, for the love of God listen to the broadcast on Tuesday and hope someone has the sense to release it commercially.


Jim said...

I was at this Concert and found the Bruckner uplifting and redemptive; Runnicles and the SSO were in top form. It made my first live experience of Nruckner a memorable one.

Unknown said...

In 1980 members of this orchestra received dismissal notices as the BBC pressured by the (Thatcher) Government (of the day) imposed swinging cuts. BBC orchestras were disbanded, but after a spirited campaign the Scottish orchestra was spared and if you were there in Leeds on 23 January 2009 you would give thanks for this brave resistance having heard a performance of the eighth so good I can scarcely find words to describe it.

Donald Runnicles following in the footsteps of the remarkable Ilan Volkov led the orchestra in a performance that left me stunned. The tempo was not slow but each phrase was carefully crafted and delivered with a beautiful clarity. The final climax of the opening movement was little short of terrifying, probably not the right word but for music that is so familiar, it still left me surprised. An extraordinary scherzo was followed by an adagio with a series of spine chilling episodes culminating in the cymbal crash climax, the trigger for multiple attacks of excitement, my whole body shaking. The finale continued in the same vain, by the return of the opening fanfare ever more emphatic, I was a shivering wreck again. By the end I was exhausted, exhilarated and ecstatic, at last, I had heard the eighth symphony

Tam Pollard said...

Very glad you both enjoyed the concert too.

@Lodekka - I wasn't aware of that about the history of the orchestra. It's good to hear the Leeds performance was as fine as the Glasgow one.

Anonymous said...

Hi Tam - I went to the Leeds concert, and concur entirely with your comments. So do posters on the Radio 3 Message Boards, here

As I said there, somewhere in Glasgow (I hope and presume) are the sets, producer's notes, costumes etc of Scottish Opera's wonderful production of the Ring - imho the best seen in these isles since the first Goetz Friedrich Ring at the ROH in the late 70s / early 80s.

Richard Armstrong was a wonderful conductor of that production, but I suspect Runnicles' name would attract some seriously good singers to Scotland, especially if it were to be scheduled in the summer months. EIF 2012, maybe?

Whom should we lobby to make this happen?

Tam Pollard said...

The concert does seem to have met with near universal praise (that rather odd Rowena Smith piece excepted). As a friend of mine noted, my own review might seem fawning, unless of course you were there.

I have very fond memories of the Scottish Opera Ring - one of the great musical experiences of my life - and down in no small part, I think, to the excellent production. There were the Rhein maidens striding across the bar, the henpecked Mime, the way they did the woodbird, and so many other magical touches.

Runnicles is superb in Wagner (I heard him do a blistering reading of Gotterdammerung at the proms a few years back - there's a review on here) so in theory it's a match made in heaven.

But.... the Ring pretty well bankrupted Scottish Opera in 2003 and it's never fully recovered. Given the strained state of the public finances (only the other day it was announced that Edinburgh Council was making significant cuts to EIF funding), I just can't see it happening in the short to medium term, which is a great shame.

However, no harm dropping the festival a line to suggest it.

In the meantime, I'll be getting a Runnicles Ring when I visit Berlin in a few months time (though unfortunately that doesn't really help you).

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