BBC SSO/Runnicles, City Halls, Glasgow

02.13.11
Donald Runnicles
Financial Times (UK)

By Andrew Clark

Having successfully transferred his professional life back to Europe after nearly two decades in North America, Donald Runnicles is making his presence felt in the heavy-duty Romantic repertoire in which he has long excelled – Mahler symphonies at the Edinburgh festival, Wagner music dramas at Berlin’s Deutsche Oper, where next month he conducts a new Tristan und Isolde. At first sight, with Brahms’s German Requiem at its heart, this programme with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra looked like another meaty bite for a conductor noted for his command of large forces.

The surprise was that the entire evening, which began with Haydn’s Trauer Symphony No 44, proved the opposite of a musical behemoth. Its most striking feature was the rapport the Edinburgh-born conductor has with his Glasgow-based orchestra in the 18 months they have been together. It’s an un-showy rapport that does not rely on demonstrative gesture but reveals itself in the rapture and fluency of music-making, like a couple that instinctively knows what the other wants.

In today’s world of promiscuous conductor-orchestra relationships, such uncomplicated music-making more than justifies Runnicles’s decision to rediscover his Scottish roots rather than seek the limelight in London. He and his orchestra proposed a chamber-musical Haydn, with phrasing that explored the potential for storm-and-stress within the supposedly stiff corset of classical form. That made for an Adagio of infinite poise and a presto-finale of lightly-worn energy – a masterpiece revealed.

True to his operatic breeding, Runnicles found drama in Brahms’s brief choral climaxes: this was not one of those slow-moving performances that turns the Requiem into something insufferably solemn and stolid. No, it sustained a quiet radiance across long arcs of melody, showcasing a fresh-voiced Edinburgh Festival Chorus (chorusmaster: Christopher Bell).

Lisa Milne soared swiftly in the soprano solo; Markus Brück was the eloquent baritone. But it was Runnicles’s mastery of Brahms’s mellow mood that “made” the performance – the unmistakable sign of a conductor’s experience kicking in.