A while back, Donald Runnicles delivered a (sadly) still unbroadcast reading of Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique that was absolutely thrilling and which made me appreciate just what a magnificent piece it is. I was reminded of this as he opened Thursday night's concert with another piece of Belioz, the overture from Béatrice et Bénédict. Many of the hallmarks of the earlier performance were present - there was precision, poise, drama and a lovely bounce to their playing. So much so that one longed to hear an entire Berlioz opera (and was once again tempted to pop over to Berlin to catch Les Troyens in December). But there was also something more. Once again the orchestra delivered a very impressive string tone - Runnicles may only have been in post a year, but I would argue that the ensemble's already fine sound is changing and improving.
After the previous week's concerto/act of opera pairing, this second concert of the season opted for the more conventional overture/concerto/symphony arrangement. For the concerto impressive young violinist Vilde Frang was once on duty, this time for the Brahms. She proved as persuasive a soloist here as in the Sibelius, her playing both technically to a high standard but also well characterised and passionate, always things that make a soloist stand out. Accompanying her, Runnicles kept the orchestra well balanced and found a good deal of the yearning that makes for fine orchestral Brahms. Yet, all said and done, despite some excellent playing, it didn't sweep me away as the Sibelius did the Sunday before. But then the Brahms has never been among my favourite violin concertos.
In the second half, Donald Runnicles took a romantic and generally fairly slow approach to Beethoven's Eroica symphony. Yet this did not for a moment mean a lack of drama: those opening chords were not so much cutting as they were a punch in the face. Anyone not paying attention would have been thereafter. It was, perhaps, the slow funeral march of the second movement that responded best to Runnicles' treatment, the climaxes within it being especially devastating. Elsewhere he found a nice mix of power and delicacy. Throughout the orchestra's playing was of the highest calibre. The finale, a series of variations, is often where many accounts fall flat. Runnicles ensured that drama and tension held to the end, building things to a thrilling conclusion. In part, this was due to the way he ensured such a clear accentuation of each variation, really marking out the differences, probing each fully and leaving you on the edge of your seat wondering how Beethoven might transform the theme next.
All told, it was a fine evening. Unfortunately that's all from Runnicles in Scotland until he visits for Brahms' Deutsche Requiem in January (though readers in German may catch their tour there later this month, playing many of the works featured in this concert and last week's). My next trip to Glasgow will be in December to hear them with Volkov, playing Britten's Double Concerto for Violin and Viola and Elgar's second symphony.