It seems like only yesterday when you were lucky to get Donald Runnicles once in a year if you lived in Scotland, so to have him three times in eight days seems oddly surreal. Okay, I'm counting a repeat concert in there, but since I got to go along to the rehearsal and interview the man himself, article and podcast to follow, I think it deserves to be counted as at least one.
In Runnicles' final programme of this year's BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra season we got an interesting mix. First up was Webern's Im Sommerwind. The eagle-eyed will remember this from their concert at the Festival this summer. Again, they made the most of the superbly textured piece, though the reading did seem a little rougher at one or two moments than it had been in Edinburgh.
This was followed by Britten's violin concerto with James Ehnes. It's a fairly early work and as such perhaps not quite so distinctive as some of his later compositions. That said, it had some wonderful touches, such as the recurring timpani motif in the first movement or the piccolo duet. It was helped by some impressively tight ensemble playing, culminating in the astonishing orchestral climax during the third movement which seemed enough to shake the foundations. Ehnes proved a most impressive soloist, technically assured and having a nice tone, especially fine during the long cadenza.
So, then, to what for me was the evening's feature work: Mahler's 4th symphony. As I was waiting for it to start, and being surprised by the number of empty seats, I reflect that this was doubly odd given the last time we heard it in Scotland was from Rattle and the Berliners all the way back in 2006. However, as they started to play I recalled Zinman's festival concert. While that might have been a fuller house, it was most certainly not the superior event musically, and the BBC SSO put the Zurich orchestra's playing into the shade. At the start of the evening we had been reminded it was Mahler's most lightly orchestrated work; and yet from the weight and power Runnicles brought to the climaxes, particularly in the first and third movements, it seemed that nobody had told him that. He also brought out details of the orchestration that haven't jumped out at me before, such as the four flutes, which lend the work a good deal of its flavour.
The second movement was very interesting too, seeming to strongly prefigure the rondo-burleske of the ninth symphony. Guest leader Fionnuala Hunt turned in a fine performance, alternating easily between her two differently tuned fiddles. In the third movement they delivered a sublime beauty to rival the best accounts, with an unbearable (in a good way) tension to boot, both leading into the central climax and in the tantalising transition into the finale. It was only here that things, for me, came slightly a cropper. I am horrendously fussy when it comes to the 4th and mostly that concerns a view of how the soprano should sound. There was something about the tone of Ji Young Yang's voice that I just didn't warm to but which I find it very difficult to put my finger on. Certainly it didn't quite seem my ideal of a vision of heavenly beauty, lacking perhaps the purity, and was not helped by more vibrato than I like. Runnicles, normally spot on in this regard, also didn't always seem to get the balance quite prominently enough in her favour. However, those wonderful long notes as she named the saints still cut to the heart. Nonetheless, it was a shame, as for me it marred a performance that was otherwise spot on.
Still, it was for the most part an extremely fine evening, if not quite the end to an excellent season I might have hoped for. Of course, for those less fussy than me in their Mahler 4 sopranos (which is probably most people), it was a good deal better than that.
The BBC SSO unveils its 2010/11 season on Monday 12th October. Where's Runniceles, will, of course, be there to report for you.