fri 25/09/2020

BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Runnicles, Royal Albert Hall | reviews, news & interviews

BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Runnicles, Royal Albert Hall

BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Runnicles, Royal Albert Hall

A glowing programme of works both English and international from Scots on top form

What a quintessential Prom: a quartet of works by English composers which aspire to international status, and in three cases wholly succeed, performed by the BBC's Scottish orchestra at world-class level under its homegrown but deservedly globetrotting chief conductor Donald Runnicles. And doing what the Albert Hall, if handled properly, assists in doing best - not the noisy stuff, but the secret rapture of four increasingly sublime slow movements welcoming us in from the Victorian colosseum's vasts.

Many in the packed hall had come, I suspect, for that Classic FM Hall of Fame evergreen, Vaughan Williams's The Lark Ascending (a mere quarter of an hour in a packed programme) but they received each special case as it ended with rapturous and sustained applause. Bit of a surprise there, for me at least, with Manchester-born John Foulds's Dynamic Triptych. I lived in fear of Foulds after the spectacular failure of an Albert Hall blockbuster outside the main Proms season, his vast and mostly vapid A World Requiem. But the Triptych's outer movements are much higher in entertainment value, dynamically enhanced indeed by a bizarrely underrated pianist, Ashley Wass.


Wass can do the thundering stuff of the first-movement cadenza with effortless clarity and energy. And he can draw you in to the meditation of a sub-Rachmaninov melody in Foulds's central "Dynamic Timbre". In other words he sounded in this performance as he had in the Vaughan Williams concerto at the Proms in a previous season, up there in terms of sonic range with a comprehensive keyboard master like Richter. So let's hear him more in other music.

The knockout effect, even so, belonged to the BBC Scottish Symphony strings, drilled by Runnicles to play their quarter-tone slides as if the orchestra had suddenly been overtaken by electronic reproduction suffering a temporary power failure. Unforgettable.

As for the Vaughan Williams reveries, Prommers with recent history will know how well they can cast their spell here from a concert marking the 50th anniversary of the composer's death two years ago. This time the orchestral pianissimos were if anything even more rapt, the flow of the Shakespeare-inspired Serenade to Music utterly serene, though the soloists less even in quality. Which is perfectly understandable given that Runnicles, presumably, had the generous idea of bringing down students from the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. Collectively, they sounded gorgeous indeed; individually, more variable both with the notes and the text, but it would be unkind to single out the best except to say that they were the ones I'd heard in the RSAMD staging of Prokofiev's original-version War and Peace earlier this year.

Nicola_Benedetti2The pretty frocks were up there with that worn by Nicola Benedetti (pictured right), but she is the glammiest of them all, no doubt - alas a bit of a prerequisite for violin-solo status these days. But rest assured; she played the Lark as a capricious force of nature to the subtle hilt, unfolding the first of VW's folk songs naturally as she coasted. If only he hadn't included the second one and extended the piece: it would work much better as an unbroken meditation.

What so impressed about Runnicles's mastery throughout was that he projected his orchestra so definitely into this impossibly resonant, soft-edged venue. Top international bands have fared much less well. But his Elgar One was also a radical piece of work to set alongside his predecessor Ilan Volkov's equally brisk and lovely Beethoven Pastoral symphony, a surprise hit of the 2008 season for me. Too fast, the Elgar? At times, perhaps. The composer's own interpretation as conductor has a similar volatility in the first movement. But we need to feel that the chromatic uncertainty which follows on the heels of noble assurance could actually swallow us up. Here it felt more like winds whipping up the previously placid sea-surface rather than whirlpools in which we struggled.

A hell-for-leather finale, too, meant that the ultimate triumph wasn't quite as much of a pay-off as it can be when the adventure has been so deeply fractured. Yet I have nothing but admiration for Runnicles's daring dash through the scherzo. The rippling river-music that winds its way through the bluster and finally leads it to a perfect peace couldn't have been more effective by way of contrast.

And that Adagio which grows out of the near silence that connects the central movements - oh, that Adagio! If there is a more bittersweet, introspective, haunted slow movement in symphonic history, I don't know it. With oaky horn choruses, woodwind that smiled with a sigh and above all a cushion of strings playing quietly but a level of intensity that again I can only compare with the pianissimos of another great Russian master, Mravinsky - well, this was a private heaven. Even in the Albert Hall.

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