Friday 5 August 2011

There's Runnicles at the BBC Proms: Holloway, Strauss and Brahms

Generally speaking, I'm pleased to be living within striking distance of London as the range of culture I get access to is better (with respect to plays, musicals and opera) than it ever was in Edinburgh outside of the Festival. But I do envy my brother in having the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Donald Runnicles playing regularly on his doorstep. I was lucky enough to be in Edinburgh when they first teamed up for unforgettable concert performances of Les Troyens and Lohengrin at the Edinburgh Festival, but these days I only get to enjoy them live on rare occasions. So I sat down with a glass of wine in a comfortable chair with some interest to see whether they would be able to wow me over the airwaves.

The concert began with a world premiere of Robin Holloway's Fifth Concerto for Orchestra. The first test of any new piece, as I've said previously, is whether you would want to hear it, or anything else by said composer, again. Holloway just about passes this test but I wasn't completely bowled over by the piece. The programme note suggested that its movements were inspired by various colours, but I couldn't really translate this meaningfully into the music that I actually heard. I also wasn't quite sure that as a whole piece it completely hung together. Did it have a distinctive voice? It's hard to say on one hearing and not knowing Holloway's output. Generally it sounded quite lush, and the start of the final movement reminded me strongly of Shostakovich. Leaving aside the merits of the piece the orchestra played superbly, including a number of excellent solos. Indeed the quality of sound which the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra currently has is very very good.

Next we moved on to Strauss's Four Last Songs. I love Strauss but I am picky about my Strauss singers. At least for these songs I do feel that a really quality performance needs a warm rich tone, with a bit of an ache in it. This for me, I'm afraid, Hillevi Martinpelto did not have. For the first three songs she sounded sour, a bit shrill and phrases were effortful where they needed to float. Things improved a bit in the final song but it wasn't enough. Martinpelto's shortcomings were rather shown up by the lushness of the orchestral accompaniment, which had just the right amount of emotional ache where it was needed. I also felt though that Runnicles was having to hold the orchestra back to her pace which damaged the forward momentum.

Finally after the interval we moved on to Brahms's Second Symphony. Again, as throughout the evening, the orchestra played superbly. The tone was rich, the solos were excellent (including an especially fine contribution from the horns, and lovely playing from the cellos in the first movement). Runnicles's reading seemed to me very lyrical and as such gave a wonderful sweep to some of Brahms's melodies (and there are some beautiful melodies in this symphony). However, it isn't a symphony that is all sweetness and light, there are some places with something of the tension and struggle of the First Symphony about them, particularly in the first and fourth movements and for me I would have liked a bit more bite and contrast here with the rest.

Overall not a completely perfect programme, but certainly an orchestra and conductor working to a very high standard. Scotland is lucky to have them. I'm looking forward to hearing them in the flesh in Mahler 2 in a couple of weeks time.

[Editor's note]

In general I agree with my brother.

In the Holloway I found the pieces very distinct, though I'm not sure I'd have reached for colours to describe them without the programme notes (in contrast with the previous night's Ravel). Certainly the opening black movement felt much darker, and the blue did feel cold and sharp to begin with before warming up - a transition to purple, perhaps. Elsewhere, though, while the second movement was brighter, 'green' didn't spring to mind. Similarly the central rainbow movement rather felt a little cluttered. The decision to move scarlet to the end certainly seemed justified, providing a bright and uplifting, almost Messiaenic close. One for further listening, certainly, if not an instant classic on first hearing.

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