Classical review: BBC SSO / Runnicles ****

11.15.14
Donald Runnicles
The Scotsman

By Ken Walton 

Donald Runnicles’ relationship with the BBC SSO, particularly his last five years as principal conductor, has been one of epic proportions.

So when it came to celebrating his 60th birthday this week, it was always going to be with one of the big guns of the repertoire. For the occasion – not least tomorrow’s actual birthday performance at the Usher Hall – he chose a work that set ablaze the onset of German Romanticism, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

Thursday’s Glasgow performance grew mightily in stature from an opening movement that shuddered initially in rhythmic stability, but which, by the triumphant choral finale with its visionary Schiller text, reached resplendent heights.

The scherzo bristled with earthy dynamism; the adagio was utterly breathtaking, evoking a magical stillness and dreamy optimism; while the finale, capped by the thrusting unanimity of the Edinburgh Festival Chorus, was an emotional knock-out. Of the soloists, Croatian bass Marko Mimico stood out markedly.

The Beethoven was prefaced by an equally wonderful, if less iconic work by Mozart: the meltingly sinuous Sinfonia Concertante for violin and viola, featuring SSO leader Laura Samuel and principal viola Scott Dickinson as soloists. That direct connection with the orchestra had a clear impact on defining the flowing charm and intimacy of the performance.

Samuel’s ringing, clean-cut precision distinguished her persona from the warm, husky masculinity of Dickinson’s viola playing, like an operatic duo made in heaven. As hugely experienced chamber musicians, their symbiosis was electrifying. The SSO, stylistically svelte and mellifluous, was the icing on the cake.

That was a very interesting opener. I don't care about the greatness of Mozart's Piano Concertos: they are sufficiently brilliant to take care of themselves. I do care about the Sinfonia Concertante, because it is one of the greatest, most perfect of all musical works, and I include Mozart's concertos and the last symphonies.

Yet it gets sidelined. There are issues. You need two soloists, a violin and a viola. But they are part of the orchestra: it's not a virtuoso display case; it's more symphonic than that. So do you employ two star soloists, or find another way? Runnicles' solution was perfect: he used Laura Samuel, leader of the SSO, and Scott Dickinson, principal viola, both extremely experienced chamber musicians, highlighted by the intimacy of their duologues, and both consummate orchestral musicians and leaders, through whom Runnicles could emphasise the symphonic integrity of the work. Fabulous playing from both, and from all. So simple; so perfect.

Not far behind it, on the endless road towards veracity, was Runnicles' and the SSO's Beethoven Ninth, where intellectual argument and drama, rather than atmospherics, dominated the first movement. Where long-range propulsion drove the Scherzo. Where sustained, expressive fluidity characterised the great slow movement, and where, when it took form and broke through, the visionary melodiousness of the finale was transcendent, with impressively rounded singing from the soloists and, not a shout in sight, the Edinburgh Festival Chorus.

That was a very interesting opener. I don't care about the greatness of Mozart's Piano Concertos: they are sufficiently brilliant to take care of themselves. I do care about the Sinfonia Concertante, because it is one of the greatest, most perfect of all musical works, and I include Mozart's concertos and the last symphonies.

Yet it gets sidelined. There are issues. You need two soloists, a violin and a viola. But they are part of the orchestra: it's not a virtuoso display case; it's more symphonic than that. So do you employ two star soloists, or find another way? Runnicles' solution was perfect: he used Laura Samuel, leader of the SSO, and Scott Dickinson, principal viola, both extremely experienced chamber musicians, highlighted by the intimacy of their duologues, and both consummate orchestral musicians and leaders, through whom Runnicles could emphasise the symphonic integrity of the work. Fabulous playing from both, and from all. So simple; so perfect.

Not far behind it, on the endless road towards veracity, was Runnicles' and the SSO's Beethoven Ninth, where intellectual argument and drama, rather than atmospherics, dominated the first movement. Where long-range propulsion drove the Scherzo. Where sustained, expressive fluidity characterised the great slow movement, and where, when it took form and broke through, the visionary melodiousness of the finale was transcendent, with impressively rounded singing from the soloists and, not a shout in sight, the Edinburgh Festival Chorus.

That was a very interesting opener. I don't care about the greatness of Mozart's Piano Concertos: they are sufficiently brilliant to take care of themselves. I do care about the Sinfonia Concertante, because it is one of the greatest, most perfect of all musical works, and I include Mozart's concertos and the last symphonies.

Yet it gets sidelined. There are issues. You need two soloists, a violin and a viola. But they are part of the orchestra: it's not a virtuoso display case; it's more symphonic than that. So do you employ two star soloists, or find another way? Runnicles' solution was perfect: he used Laura Samuel, leader of the SSO, and Scott Dickinson, principal viola, both extremely experienced chamber musicians, highlighted by the intimacy of their duologues, and both consummate orchestral musicians and leaders, through whom Runnicles could emphasise the symphonic integrity of the work. Fabulous playing from both, and from all. So simple; so perfect.

Not far behind it, on the endless road towards veracity, was Runnicles' and the SSO's Beethoven Ninth, where intellectual argument and drama, rather than atmospherics, dominated the first movement. Where long-range propulsion drove the Scherzo. Where sustained, expressive fluidity characterised the great slow movement, and where, when it took form and broke through, the visionary melodiousness of the finale was transcendent, with impressively rounded singing from the soloists and, not a shout in sight, the Edinburgh Festival Chorus.

That was a very interesting opener. I don't care about the greatness of Mozart's Piano Concertos: they are sufficiently brilliant to take care of themselves. I do care about the Sinfonia Concertante, because it is one of the greatest, most perfect of all musical works, and I include Mozart's concertos and the last symphonies.

Yet it gets sidelined. There are issues. You need two soloists, a violin and a viola. But they are part of the orchestra: it's not a virtuoso display case; it's more symphonic than that. So do you employ two star soloists, or find another way? Runnicles' solution was perfect: he used Laura Samuel, leader of the SSO, and Scott Dickinson, principal viola, both extremely experienced chamber musicians, highlighted by the intimacy of their duologues, and both consummate orchestral musicians and leaders, through whom Runnicles could emphasise the symphonic integrity of the work. Fabulous playing from both, and from all. So simple; so perfect.

Not far behind it, on the endless road towards veracity, was Runnicles' and the SSO's Beethoven Ninth, where intellectual argument and drama, rather than atmospherics, dominated the first movement. Where long-range propulsion drove the Scherzo. Where sustained, expressive fluidity characterised the great slow movement, and where, when it took form and broke through, the visionary melodiousness of the finale was transcendent, with impressively rounded singing from the soloists and, not a shout in sight, the Edinburgh Festival Chorus.