BBCSSO/Runnicles – review

Donald Runnicles
The Guardian (UK)

By Kate Molleson

City Hall, Glasgow

4 out of 5 stars

It was a grandiose billing, but Glasgow's first official Donald Runnicles Weekend turned out to be a mostly modest affair. It had been touching to see Runnicles take to the piano alongside musicians he usually conducts, plus there were a couple of documentary screenings and a live session for Radio 3's In Tune. To close, though, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra's chief conductor was back on the podium with the kind of epic work for which he's known best: Bruckner's Seventh Symphony.

Also on the programme was a one-movement cello concerto, Mariel, written by Argentinean composer Osvaldo Golijov after the death of a close friend. The piece aims to capture an emotional state between shock and grief, but Golijov relies on stock emotive triggers too insipid to convey much. Strings pulse anxiously, winds clump together in clumsy block chords, while the solo line – beautifully vocalised by BBCSSO principal cello Martin Storey – hangs insipid and listless over the top.

It made for a bizarre companion piece but Runnicles' Bruckner was too persuasive to be thrown off kilter. When faced with a canvas this vast, he tends to conduct with his arms raised high, nearly above his head, as if making room for the sound to expand beneath them. And expand it did; for an orchestra who hadn't played the symphony since 1975, the BBCSSO sounded utterly on home territory. From the sumptuous opening cello theme to the finale's noble fanfares, this was a spacious, tender and beautifully poised performance. Runnicles scales the big picture by keeping his brush strokes unforced; he has a gentle way of finishing off phrases, too, tapering chords on the short side to avoid them getting pompous. For all the time he gave the symphony's internal corners, this felt a very short hour.