Note - this is a review of the concert as broadcast on Radio 3.
Time was, and it was only a couple of years ago, that it was a rare sight to catch Donald Runnicles performing in the UK. So rare, in fact, that websites were given names playing upon the fact (okay, one website). Now, some three and a half years later, here he is, conducting two Proms concerts on consecutive nights a few weeks before he is due to give another two completely different programmes at the Edinburgh international festival. Such, indeed, is the embarrassment of riches, that for once your correspondent didn't feel the need to make a mad dash south to catch the Proms. Having heard the first from a distance, I'm already slightly regretting that.
Joined by pianist Ashley Wass, Runnicles and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra opened the programme with a piece by unjustly little known composer John Foulds. Or, to put it another way, with a piece, Dynamic Triptych, which despite being written more than 80 years ago, was receiving its Proms premiere. Having heard it, it's difficult to understand why. Wass's strong and glittering solo playing in the opening movement was matched perfectly by the orchestra, creating a rich and evocative sound world. Perhaps most remarkable was the central movement, at times somewhat otherworldly as they produced some wonderful string sounds, sometimes seemingly in slow motion. The piece had a sense of playfulness too, especially in the finale which built to a thrilling climax, nicely underscored by some great low brass sounds. The piece hung together very well, having a strong narrative feel. Would that we heard it in concert halls more often.
Foulds was followed by two pieces from Vaughan Williams, one either side of the interval. I must confess that I'm not the greatest fan of the composer and in the wrong hands I find his music can be a little dull. Not so with Runnicles and the BBCSSO playing the Serenade to Music. Rich and shimmering textures from the orchestra were complimented by some fine singing provided by members of the RSAMD (another fruit of the collaboration between the two institutions). Voices were balanced nicely and the result was captivating. Together the provided both some fine climaxes and a nice fade away to silence at the end.
After the interval they were joined by violinist Nicola Benedetti who delivered a fine and richly coloured solo in The Lark Ascending, with Runnicles and the orchestra providing sensitive support beneath her. The incredibly delicacy on display from all the players enhanced the work's beauty, so too Benedetti's well characterised playing, which genuinely called to mind birdsong, something I don't always find the case. The result was moving, even several hundred miles away, an effect enhanced by the way they managed to hold the silence for a reasonable interval before everyone clapped.
As if that wasn't enough, there was still nearly one hour more of music to come in the form of Elgar's first symphony. Right from the wonderful slow introduction, gloriously played by the BBC Scottish, it was clear something special was in store. Perhaps most remarkable was the way he mixed both aching beauty in the slow moments with fabulous and thrilling energy in the climaxes, moving naturally between the two. Indeed, as much as the incredible beauty of the orchestra's playing, a hallmark of the evening as a whole, it was Runnicles' sense of flow and structure that made this so special. By the time they reached the wonderful return of the opening theme in the finale it felt like they had taken us on an epic journey. The only real blemish was a slight one: the smattering of applause after the slow movement, something that doesn't normally bug me too much, felt badly out of place. When the BBC Music Magazine put this on their cover disc, and they should do so as soon as is humanly possible, they should chop that out. Sadly there's probably less they can do about the person who chose to loudly blow their nose over the incredibly soft opening of the finale. But such annoyances were minor and didn't really detract from a thrilling experience, one which, thanks to the iPlayer, you can, and should, repeat at your leisure.
Apparently there was even more drama on the stage, with a viola falling apart in the hands of its player, but in a testament to both skill and professionalism, the moment is unnoticeable on the broadcast.