Proms 27: BBCSSO/Runnicles – Review; Royal Albert Hall, London

Donald Runnicles
The Guardian

By Guy Dammann

Few figures were more important for Anton Bruckner's career than the great German-Jewish conductor Hermann Levi, and Levi's refusal to mount a performance of the composer's Eighth Symphony because he felt unable "to make it his own" sent Bruckner into a deep depression from which he only emerged three years later, with the work revised and extended. At 80 minutes long the symphony appears daunting, but when well prepared and patiently executed, there are few works of comparable dimension and emotional scope that present less of a challenge to the listener.

Donald Runnicles has a remarkable affinity for Bruckner's music, a natural extension, perhaps, of his long involvement with Wagner's scores. Both composers featured in the conductor's first Prom this year with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, in a lop-sided but otherwise beautifully considered programme consisting of Wagner's Siegfried Idyll and Bruckner's Eighth. The Wagner was superbly presented, with no sentimentality but simply an evenly breathed tenderness, the slow-burn intensity provided by the strings' exceptional warmth of tone at the low dynamic levels.

The Bruckner also flowed superbly, its first movement themes echoing Wagner's idyll before embarking on their altogether different journey. I don't know if Runnicles feels he has "made the work his own", but his conception of its immense trajectory was impossible to fault, as was the balance between the expanded brass and strings, difficult to achieve and yet so crucial to the work's dramatisation of self-doubt and affirmation. The grand textures of the outer movements filled the hall, and though the phrasing occasionally lacked detail, it made up for this in its dynamism. Indeed, though by no means a hurried performance, the experience simply flew by – it's not often you hear cries of "encore" after a Bruckner symphony, but I would gladly have heard this one repeated in full.