Thursday, 6 October 2011

Here's Runnicles, with Beethoven, Strauss and Elgar

Time was when you had to wait a couple of years for the chance to hear Donald Runnicles conduct in Scotland; nowadays you can easily hear him twice in a week (indeed, three times if you fancy a trip to Aberdeen and don't mind hearing one of the concerts a second time).

After MacMillan's St John Passion in Glasgow, Sunday night in the Usher Hall saw a more conventional programme. At its head was Beethoven's Egmont overture. From the grandeur and weight they brought to the opening bars onwards, this proved to be a fine curtain raiser. Heft early on was balanced by a lightness of touch elsewhere. Add to that the ferocious attack of the strings and the thrilling excitement of the finale and it was just what was needed to get the pulse racing.

Strauss's Four Last Songs, something of a Runnicles favourite, followed. The performance had a lot in common with that which they gave at the Proms recently. There was the same well judged and richly textured orchestral playing, but unfortunately there was also a similar weak link: the soloist. Michaela Kaune's voice was rather thin and generally didn't ride well over the orchestra (in fairness to her, I was under the overhang in the dress circle and while I don't think this causes problems with orchestral sound, I think it may not be ideal for voices). On the occasions when she did rise above the BBC SSO, it sounded forced. Most crucially, she didn't convey the weight of emotion that the songs need.

Alone in the second half sat Elgar's 2nd symphony. Generally I find it a much less persuasive and engaging work than the 1st. Yet here it was given a fine reading. Rich and with plenty of grandeur where called for, though it was not weighed down by excessive sentiment, as evidenced by the energetic opening. Highlights of the performance, aided by the same excellent orchestral playing we enjoyed all evening, included the great beauty they found at the end of the slow movement and the thrilling drama of the third (enhanced by the tambourine being pounded to within an inch of its life). The wonderful and uplifting energy they brought to the finale provided a fitting close to the evening. Taken together with the fine 1st served up at last year's Proms, it confirms Elgar as a strong string on Runnicles' bow. It also seems worth noting that the pair would make a fine CD release from a partnership that has surprisingly yet to issue one.

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