Sunday 29 August 2010

Here's Runnicles, with Stravinsky, Bernstein and Dvořák

Each August and September, thanks to the Edinburgh International Festival, we get treated to a few of the world's great orchestras.  What has struck me over the last four days, in the space of which, on nearly consecutive nights, we've heard from each of Scotland's main orchestras, is the extent to which the locals can stand toe to toe with the competition in terms of the quality of their playing.  On Saturday, with Donald Runnicles, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra provided the third demonstration in the series.

The programme had been chosen to fit with the festival's New Worlds theme and they opened it with Stravinsky's Concerto in E-flat "Dumbarton Oaks".  Repeating a trick we last saw from him in January with the Siegfried Idyll, it allowed Runnicles to pare back the BBC SSO to a minimum with just the first desks of strings along with flute, clarinet, bassoon and few horns.  There was some superb playing on show, but piece as a whole didn't do a huge among for me.

More normal sized forces followed for Bernstein's Serenade, and full string orchestra was joined by an interesting array of percussion (sensitively used).  Above them violin soloist Midori played beautifully and with plenty of character.  The slow movement was especially fine, both for the incredible soft playing of the orchestra and for the solo part - based on a three part song, the violin certainly sang.

The real highlight, however, came after the interval.  Dvořák's 9th symphony, From the New World, is heard so often it rarely feels new.  Runnicles didn't quite make it sound that way, but they did provide a performance that was absolutely electrifying.  From the quiet opening bars, building tension, to the first thrilling climaxes, it was clear that something special was in store.  In my review of the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra I complained of a lack of bite - for a lesson in what I meant, they need look no further.  The vigour with which the BBC SSO went on the attack was stunning.

As with the best interpreters, Runnicles managed to effortlessly and naturally blend this fire with the sublime.  The slow movement was as beautifully played as you could wish, with a fine cor anglais solo from James Horan which was set against some stunning extreme pianissimos from the strings.  As ever, Runnicles ensured the solo part was well balanced with the orchestra (as, indeed, he did with the equally fine wind solos elsewhere).  For the finale it was back to drama as he ratcheted the tension up and up before releasing it in a magnificent finish.  To say it was electric would be an understatement; this was the sort of performance you could use to power the entire national grid.

The major reservation concerned the audience.  There seemed to be a sudden epidemic of coughing in Edinburgh which I haven't noticed so far at the festival.  It was especially acute here since there were so many quiet passages and people seemed to make no effort to hold their coughs to avoid them.  Time and again wonderful pianissimos were spoilt.  The infuriating thing is that if only people would bring a handkerchief to put over their mouth, the sound can be significantly muffled.  I don't expect everyone with a cough not to attend a concert, but they could show some consideration for everyone else (as I do when I'm in that boat - actually, I find it's almost always possible to hold in coughs until the applause).

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