Prom 24: Donald Runnicles conducts James MacMillan's Fourth Symphony and Mahler's Fifth - BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra

Donald Runnicles
Classical Source

James MacMillan’s latest Symphony, completed this year, is dedicated to Donald Runnicles. Sir James’s No.4 plays continuously for close on forty minutes, is scored for a full if not extravagant orchestra – including harp, piano, celesta and enough percussion (including timpani) for four players – and has ritual in different manifestations as its inspiration as well as the “embedding” into the score of choral music by Robert Carver (c.1485-c.1570), a centuries-ago Scottish predecessor of MacMillan’s that he much admires.

A first hearing of something complex doesn’t necessarily give the listener the full story, and I am keen to hear the work again – a positive sign of course – not least to solve the structure of it. Certainly MacMillan’s orchestration consistently attracts the ear, chiming mysteriously at the very beginning. Sinuous melody plays a big part in the work, often surrounded in decoration – this is music ancient and modern, something acknowledged by the conductor in an interview but penned by your correspondent before reading that!

If there is an initial doubt as to this piece wholly living up to its title, it’s certainly going to be intriguing to re-visit it, but there are no doubts about this first performance being superb, the BBCSSO giving its all and with Runnicles totally commanding in his conducting. The composer seemed bowled over.

Runnicles doesn’t sensationalise or go for cheap effects, and nothing was given away easily, nor were Mahler’s later emendations (usually made for specific circumstances) given employment, thankfully, such as the principal horn playing from the front of the stage in the Scherzo, which Mahler is quoted as saying “is the very devil of a movement ... Conductors will all take it too fast and make nonsense of it...”. Not Runnicles, who found lilt and suavity while maintaining suspense, so that the flare-ups really meant something, and during which the horns, led by Richard Watkins, were especially impressive, as was he alone. In the rampaging coda, Runnicles, animated and authoritative throughout the performance, had both feet off the podium a couple of times.

The Symphony’s final part begins with the Adagietto, for strings and harp, a love-letter from Mahler to Alma. Runnicles took a spacious view but never inflated the music and was flexible with it for ten beautifully played, rapt and poetic, minutes. A solo horn breaks the spell to introduce the finale, full of baroque devices that feed the joy and wit this movement abounds in, given here with grace and favour. Runnicles waved the carnival band in with delight and the exuberant coda flew to as emphatic a final chord as you could want.

This MacMillan 4/Mahler 5 match – the latter edging things without going into extra time – was another resounding success at the Proms for Donald Runnicles and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. Let there be many more.
Read the rest of the review here