Sadly the first of Donald Runnicles' two Proms performances with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra didn't get off to the best of starts. At least, not for those of us trying to listen online via the Radio 3's HD stream, which was beset by a bubbling sound more appropriate to Professor Snape's potions classroom than the Royal Albert Hall. Even the iPlayer's basic 192 kbps AAC stream was similarly afflicted with only the low bandwidth (and frankly unlistenable) 48 kbps behaving. After much frustration, I finally found that the higher quality iTunes stream was behaving (though this still seemed lower than the normal HD). Regardless, I missed Debussy's Prelude a l'apres-midi d'un faune and Dutilleux's Tout un monde lointain... as a result. Yes, of course there is listen again, but unlike for TV, HD radio is available only on the live stream.
By the time they got going with Ravel's Bolero I had things more or less working again. I must confess I am not the greatest fan of the piece which can, in the wrong hands, sound dull and repetitive. One of the keys to avoiding this is bringing out the multitude of colours in Ravel's orchestration, something the composer particularly excelled at, and thereby finding sufficient variety. Here, Runnicles and the BBC SSO succeeded. In addition, they built steadily and purposefully to a decent climax. That said, even with Runnicles at the helm and playing as fine as this, if you told me I'd never hear the piece ever again, I wouldn't shed a tear.
And if Bolero shows Ravel's skills as an orchestrator, surely Daphnis et Chloe shows a genius on another level altogether. The work is one of Runnicles' favourites and it was one of the first pieces he did with the BBC SSO after he started as their Chief Conductor. Indeed, he often keeps the score open at home. They gave it a beautiful reading. One of my favourite things about it is Ravel's magical and etherial writing for the choir. Here the singers of the Edinburgh Festival Chorus were on duty (as, indeed, they were last time). One good aspect of Runnicles' tenure has been his desire to collaborate with the ensemble outside the festival and their performance showed why.
Then there is his ability to take the orchestra naturally from serene beauty and whip it up to frenzied climax, then lower it back down again. It was a treat to listen to from start to finish, as the strings shimmered, then the winds sparkled here or the brass glistened there, and above it all the chorus soared in from time to time to add a further otherworldly texture.
A little later, and the iPlayer afforded the opportunity to hear the start of the concert. Debussy's Prelude a l'apres-midi d'un faune, with its vivid afternoon heat, seemed a nice compliment to the Ravel that had closed the concert. Here too there was rich playing, details nicely accentuated, together painting a picture in a similarly evocative manner.
For me perhaps the only purely musical disappointment was Dutilleux's cello concerto Tout un monde lointain... This is not the first time I've heard the piece, which was to be found together with Bolero in another all French Runnicles programme at the end of last season. It didn't do too much for me on that occasion either. The playing was fine enough, though in his encore I (Bourrées I & II from Bach's C major suite for solo cello) soloist Lynn Harrell did not seem to dig nearly as deeply as the finest interpreters. In fairness, the concerto does have some interesting things going on, especially in the sounds and textures created, lending some weight to Harrell's contention that it revolutionises what a cello can do with an orchestra. Yet, ultimately, it left me cold. The finest such work since the Dvořák? So finer than the Elgar? Please!
Still, all in all it was a fine evening of music, technical hitches aside. You can listen again via the iPlayer. The team are back again this evening for more, including a Brahms 2 which, if their last attempt is anything to go by, should be well worth hearing.