BBC SSO / Donald Runnicles – review

Donald Runnicles
The Guardian

By Kate Molleson

City Halls, Glasgow ****

There's something remarkable about the way the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra play Brahms, especially when chief conductor Donald Runnicles is in town. Perhaps it's the particular sound they make – clear, sparse, the opposite of overblown (underblown?) – or their way of handling Romantic music as if from a distance, miles from anything resembling maudlin. Which isn't to say cold: Runnicles took the same brisk approach here with the Second Symphony as he did with the German Requiem a couple of months ago, and both tapped into all the angst and jubilation of interpretations at the other end of the spectrum.

Context has a lot to do with it, too. Ever serious about new music, the BBCSSO commissioned four "companion pieces" to Brahms's symphonies (Sally Beamish's partner for the Fourth was premiered last year, Detlev Glanert and Matthias Pintscher follow in 2012). Stuart MacRae's Gravity distils gestures that are huge in Brahms 2 into concentrated strands – a pseudo-lyrical violin melody here, a heroic brass fanfare there, gently shifting rhythms about. In isolation they might remind you of Brahms, but piled together the association blurs and deliberate haziness sets in. Brahms created cohesion no matter how epic the scale; MacRae's piece isn't linear in the same way (the title is a give away) and the various strands wander a bit. But it's beautifully written for the orchestra, taking advantage of its prowess for proper hush.

Scottish mezzo Karen Cargill was soloist in the Rückert-Lieder, Mahler's subdued orchestral love songs. Her voice sounded odd – blossoming at the top then turning to a veiled bleat lower down – but she's a favourite in this city, and justifiably so for her heartfelt delivery.