In the concert hall, Donald Runnicles often seems most at home when taking on big and dramatic choral works, such as Mahler's epic 8th or Verdi's Requiem. So it was on Sunday night as he turned his baton to another great requiem, that of Johannes Brahms.
He took a generally slow approach and didn't always go all out, such as at the start of Denn alles fleisch, holding his fire for the big climaxes, and the more shattering they were for it. At the height of that second movement, also with Qual ruhret sie an and the passage from Revelation that closes the penultimate movement, Runnicles pulled together excellent playing and great choral singing to deliver a devastating emotional impact. It also was nice to have the Usher Hall organ getting a good workout, and made me glad this programme was on there and not just in City Halls, where doubtless they had to make do with a fake one which never feels quite the same, and I really do mean feel. (Edit - see the comments below - no organ was used in Glasgow.) Great climaxes, though, are for naught if the momentum is lost between them. Fortunately Runnicles' mastery of structure was once again on display.
Yet it was the Edinburgh Festival Chorus who were the evening's real stars. About five years ago, they often felt like a pale shadow of their historic selves; last night, however, they were as fine as I've ever heard them, showcasing just how far they've come recently under Christopher Bell. Not only was there a wonderful physical range, from the delicate passages to the loudest climaxes, not only fine control, but they also conveyed a powerful weight and emotion, nowhere more so than as they and the orchestra faded to nothing at the end.
The weak links, such as they were, were to be found amongst the soloists (both representing a change from the originally advertised pair of Helena Juntunen and Matthew Worth). Markus Brück was altogether too nasal for my taste. In addition, he lacked a commanding presence. Especially in a requiem, it should feel as though the soloists are speaking to you from beyond, as it felt with the choir and the orchestra. No so with Brück. Lisa Milne had too much vibrato for me and her voice was a little thin in places. But the solo parts are small, this is a requiem that belongs to the chorus and they, together with Runnicles and the orchestra, nailed it so well that such splitting of hairs didn't detract much.
I complained the other day about about an absence of Haydn in the concert hall, yet the first half of the contained my third of his symphonies in the last month. Runnicles may not have delivered quite the revelation provided by Ticciati, but he nonetheless showcased why we should hear more from this great symphonist. With the BBCSSO trimmed back to chamber size he delivered an opening movement with a nice bounce to it and a brightness that somewhat belied the Mourning nickname, if not quite having the agility one might ideally find in Haydn. It was with the minuet that the reading really began to excel, Runnicles fully finding and bringing out its complexity. Then, in the adagio, the strings of the SSO shone with the most heartbreaking delicacy, Runnicles at times knowing when he no longer needed to conduct and could simply let the players get on with it, before launching them into a helter-skelter finale. Once again, it had one wondering why we don't hear more Haydn. True, perhaps they do work best with a chamber orchestra, but the BBCSSO showed there is no reason for larger orchestras not to programme them.
The concert is due for broadcast in Radio 3's Performance on 3 on Wednesday (it's not clear if this is the Glasgow or Edinburgh leg). Runnicles and the BBCSSO return to the Usher Hall in April for Mahler's Ruckertlieder and Brahms 2. On the strength of this, well worth hearing.