The audience in the Usher Hall was depressingly thin on Sunday night: even with the upper circle closed, there were huge swaths of empty seats. This despite a programme that was hardly adventurous, featuring as it did romantic mainstays Mahler and Brahms.
Possibly some had been put off by the presence of John Adams, whose work opened the concert. If so that would be a pity as for me it was in some ways the highlight. My Father Knew Charles Ives most strongly evokes the eponymous composer in its opening movement, with its parade and frenetic climax (not to mention some fine trumpet work from Mark O'Keeffe). It is an evocative piece throughout, the second movement full of shimmering textures that perfectly describe the water of a lake. Then, in the final movement, Adams takes us to the mountains. Here were stunning and dangerous vistas, as clear as anything in Strauss or Sibelius.
Brahms 2nd symphony, which closed the evening, is perhaps my least favourite, and yet when played like this I am given to wonder why. From the start Runnicles elicited a fine and rich sound from the BBC SSO and there was a strong sense of yearning that is often synonymous with a fine Brahms performance. Yet there was not a hint of the stodginess that can mire Brahms and this symphony in particular, indeed what marked the reading out was the great lightness of touch and nimbleness which they brought to it. Capped by an exciting finale, it made a fine and emotional finish to the concert and indeed this Edinburgh season.
The only slight disappointment came with Mahler's Ruckert Lieder. On paper everything was there, not least Karen Cargill, whose haunting tone makes her, for me, one of the finest Mahler singers around. And, at many points, this is exactly what we got, with Um Mitternacht and Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen being particularly satisfying. Yet at too many other moments her voice got lost amongst the orchestra. Odd, as Runnicles is normally a sensitive accompanist. Perhaps it was just that I was back under the overhang in the dress circle, which I normally prefer for big orchestral works but which may not be the ideal acoustic for lieder. (Certainly some friends I ran into afterwards, who were sitting elsewhere, ranked it the highlight of the evening.)
The real shame is that more of the city didn't turn out to hear this treat. Just as last year when Oramo and the extraordinary Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra played to a half-filled house, one has to wonder if Edinburgh is aware of what it's missing. In a recent article Kenneth Walton posits that Edinburgers are somehow allergic to music on Sunday nights. Perhaps, but it seems odd that other orchestras in other cities (the LSO, say) can manage such series successful. The solution he suggests, of sharing the RSNO's Friday night series fills me with horror. I'm always tired by Friday and find I enjoy concerts less as a result. I'd suggest to him that poor turnout at Festival Theatre gigs had less to do with the day of the week than with erratic (and often early afternoon) timings and, much more, its manifest unsuitability as a concert venue, even with that ridiculous white acoustic curtain.
We won't see Runnicles and the BBC SSO in the Usher Hall again until August when they perform Mahler 2 (also with Cargill). Walton might like to note that concert takes place on a Sunday. I wonder if he would like to wager as to whether or not it will sell out?