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.