Why, you might well ask, was I in Glasgow for Thursday's BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra concert? True enough, Donald Runnicles was on the podium, normally sufficient to guarantee my presence, but this was one of two programmes in the current season being repeated in Edinburgh. I bought the ticket in part because my original plan was to be at Jacques Loussier instead of the Edinburgh performance. However, much though I adore what Loussier does with Bach's fifth Brandenburg concerto (it would probably be one of my desert island discs), the chance to interview the man himself necessitated a rethink. But I still had my ticket to Glasgow, and it was worth using for one simple reason: the Glasgow concert had a coda, a brief recital by the evening's soloist, Christine Brewer, accompanied by Runnicles on the piano. You might, perhaps, think it was excessive to have gone all the way to Glasgow just for this. You would, however, be mistaken.
The evening began with Wagner, Runnicles after all being one of the foremost conductors in that repertoire. He had chosen the Prelude and Venusberg Music from Tannhauser, interestingly the same chunk that Mackerras opened a recent concert with. Runnicles took a much slower approach, yet building from the beautifully soft opening of the winds, he whipped the piece into an absolute, and powerfully punctuated, frenzy, so much so that one worried it might overwhelm the Strauss songs that were to follow. But, of course, the piece doesn't work that way, and with a perfect conception of the structure he calmed things back down to the softest of endings. Next month I'm in Berlin to see Runnicles conduct the Ring; if this was anything to go by, we're in for a treat.
Then Brewer took to the stage. I've sung her praises many a time before and there can be little doubt that she ranks amongst the world's foremost sopranos. She has an excellent chemistry with Runnicles and the pair have collaborated to great effect both on disc and in the concert hall. The six Strauss songs they had chosen seemed almost deliberately picked to showcase the range of her voice, which was equally at home above the wonderfully soft, shimmering strings that opened Wiegenlied as it was riding over the powerful climaxes to be found elsewhere. Her exceptional artistry was matched by no less fine playing from the orchestra. It was sufficiently well received that they delivered an encore (Morgen, I think, lieder isn't my speciality so please correct me via the comments).
After the interval came Beethoven's seventh symphony. The last time I encountered Runnicles and this work in the same hall was during the 2006 Festival, when he was spotted in the audience for Mackerras's exceptional SCO performance. Runnicles, wisely didn't attempt to outdo Mackerras at his own game and, though he had slimmed down the BBC Scottish, this was still comparatively big band Beethoven. Yet there was no shortage of the excitement and the joy that make this symphony a favourite for so many, if not quite the ultimate white-knuckle ride. There were lovely touches, such as way he built the tension leading into the first movement's main theme. In some ways the slow movement responded best to his treatment, and yet it wasn't heavy, with Runnicles seeming to go out of his way at times to show off the phenomenal delicacy of which the orchestra is capable.
It might have been the positioning, basses behind cellos, forming a wedge, but the bass line throughout, particularly at the start of the slow movement, had the most fabulous weight and richness. Indeed, while Mackerras showcased Beethoven's wind writing, Runnicles treated us to the glories of his string sounds. Richness pervaded the work, lending the third movement a different, but no less joyful, feel than I'm used to. The finale might not have been the quickest, but it was no slouch either. Pauses were held to maximum dramatic effect and the result was thrilling, culminating in a heart-stopping final few bars. It wasn't completely perfect, a couple of fluffed notes here and there, but it was compelling listening and toe-tappingly good.
They had, however, saved the best for last. I don't normally stay for the post concert coda when I'm at City Halls, mainly because I want to catch my train back east, but then I don't get to hear Donald Runnicles playing the piano as an accompanist for Christine Brewer just any day. In the intervening time Brewer had changed her dress and seemed quite surprised, saying "They didn't tell me so many people would stay." Perhaps this was false modesty, but based on her earlier performance the only surprise was than anyone left.
She then apologised for both her nerves and her Scots pronunciation as she launched into a setting of Robert Burns' Ye Banks and Braes. Apology was needed on neither count. Britten's arrangement of Down by the Salley Gardens my love and I did meet, was even finer. The beauty she brought to the "foolish" of "But I, being young and foolish" was simply breathtaking. Then, she effortlessly showed us another side, and a great wit with first Leprechaun and then Bernstein's fabulous cycle I Hate Music, where she exploited the irony of the audience denigrating lyrics to the fullest possible extent. All the while acting a child as compellingly as you could imagine. Runnicles proved as sensitive an accompanist on the piano as he is with the orchestra, having a nicely understated touch. They were so well received that they gave us one final piece of Strauss to send us on our way. The array of cameras present suggest that the event may find its way onto the BBC website soon - here's hoping.
The programme was repeated in Aberdeen tonight and again in Edinburgh on Sunday - don't miss it (though sadly the recital was Glasgow only). Those who can't make it can catch the Radio 3 broadcast on Wednesday. As if that wasn't enough, Runnicles is here for another week, and next Thursday we get Mahler's fourth symphony and Britten's violin concerto. It's a great time to be living in Scotland.
Postscript. The title implies Runnicles has never done that sort of recital before, when really he simply hasn't been known for it Scotland. I understand he used to do so regularly during his tenure at San Francisco Opera. Let's hope he'll give us more of the same over the coming years.