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Proms 27: Donald Runnicles conducts Wagner & Bruckner
By Mark Pullinger
Anton Bruckner revered Richard Wagner to the extent that his Third Symphony was dedicated to him (and originally included quotations from his works), so the two composers make a natural pairing for concert programmers. Donald Runnicles preceded Bruckner’s titanic Eighth Symphony with Wagner’s most intimate piece, Siegfried Idyll, written as an extravagant birthday present to his wife, Cosima, and first performed on Christmas Day 1870.
Here the string forces – 32 in total – were greater in number than those which lined the staircase to the Wagners’ bedroom of Tribschen to serenade Cosima. The Royal Albert Hall is somewhat more cavernous than a Swiss villa, of course. At a few points strings were pared down to a string quartet, such as the first 28 bars, but as finely as they played, I couldn’t help but feel that the full ensemble occasionally smothered the woodwinds, not allowing them to characterise as vividly as if they were part of a genuine chamber ensemble. However, this was a beautifully shaped performance, with supple tempos from Runnicles. Following the sequence of string trills, the rippling arpeggios (from bar 140) were smoothly articulated. The carolling woodwinds in the episode which follows were full of charm, with the horn solo and rustling strings familiar from the ‘Forest murmurs’ episode of Siegfried, which Wagner was busy composing at the time, being particularly noteworthy.
In tackling any Bruckner symphony, the question of editions needs to be addressed. Originally composed in 1884, Bruckner spent years revising the Eighth before its 1887 premiere. Shaken by criticism, a new version was prepared in 1890 by Bruckner and his student Josef Schalk; major changes include the end of first movement (quiet rather than triumphal), and alterations in the trio of the scherzo and cuts made in the Adagio. In his 1935 edition, Robert Haas decided that Schalk’s influence was too strong and restored 30 bars of music, whereas Leopold Nowak’s 1955 publication of the 1890 score accepts those excisions.
Bruckner’s music can seem episodic as it changes from one theme to the next, giving it a stop-start nature in which it’s too easy to stall. Runnicles managed these transitions organically, without any clunking gear changes. This wasn’t a glossy Rolls-Royce performance, full of excess string sheen and powerhouse brass, but an enthralling ride, at times rugged and exhilarating, at times tremendously tender. The playing wasn’t always flawless, but I’d much prefer an interpretation with vigour and heart. Tempos were kept on the move, but were never breathless. Runnicles had Bruckner’s score clearly mapped out; often using a very small beat, aided by the occasional shrug and smile, he guided his orchestra without fuss, his precise direction encouraging accuracy from the strings without them being cold or clinical. Similarly, he brought out the burnished colouring in the brass without it blaring coarsely.
The strings (violins antiphonal) were warmly engaging from their very first tremolando, Runnicles tapping into the restless, searching quality of the opening movement, especially when Bruckner moves into his familiar duple- against triple-time rhythms. They scaled down to a whisper to usher in a wonderful horn solo. After the great climax, Runnicles gave woodwinds time to ease into their solos. The scherzo was crisply paced, horns braying joyously, the oft-repeated motifs driven forward impulsively before relaxing slightly for the trio, a rare moment of pastoral charm in this work.
The strings discovered an ethereal, almost weightless, quality at the opening of the Adagio. The way Runnicles encouraged them to relax into the chords (cushioned by harp arpeggios) created some of the most beautiful playing heard at the Proms this season. The nobility of sound of the Wagner tubas was especially fine. The climax was reached with perfect momentum, tension maintained despite the gentle unwind, Runnicles rightly observing the ‘nicht schleppend’ (not dragging) instruction. The lengthy finale was launched with real attack, although the timpani were not always as strong as required. The brass fanfares were quite thrilling though, charting each ascent with vigour, sonorous chorales altering the mood before a series of climaxes built inexorably to a magisterial C major burst at the symphony’s ecstatic conclusion. This was an immensely rewarding performance.