BBC SSO - Empire Theatre, Eden Court, Inverness, 2 February 2013

Donald Runnicles
Northings (Scotland)

By James Munro

MEMORY defeats me when it comes to recalling the last visit to Inverness by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra accompanied by their Chief Conductor.

THAT IS not to say that we have not enjoyed many memorable concerts from this orchestra, it is just that Inverness has been failing to register on the radar of a succession of Chief Conductors. The present incumbent, Edinburgh born Donald Runnicles – his voice still showing traces of seventeen years in California – apologised in his pre-concert talk for taking so long to reach the Highland capital, not just the three years or so since he took the helm of the BBC SSO, but in fact in his life. Maestro, after Saturday evening, you are forgiven!

The concert title told us that “Runnicles conducts Beethoven’s Fifth” but it not tell us that the whole evening was an exploration of generations of music in Vienna. Opening with Austria’s alternative national anthem, Runnicles showed that it was possible to imbue the Blue Danube Waltz of Johann Strauss the younger with a fresh interpretation by breaking up the standard flow of the waltz tempo by introducing very short pauses between the sequence of dance themes. This was a well thought out and reconstructed interpretation.

Moving forward a mere two generations to 1935 to the Second, or post-Mahlerian, Viennese Musical School, the Lithuanian born violinist and Pinchas Zukerman protégé Julian Rachlin joined the BBC SSO for the Violin Concerto by Alban Berg. The work is dedicated to the memory of an angel, the 18 year old Manon, daughter of Bauhaus architect Walter Gropius and his wife Alma Schindler, the widow of Mahler.

From the very opening notes of the short ‘Preludium’, Rachlin had the measure of the atmospheric contrasts between his violin and the brass and wind sections. As this opening section segued into the ‘Scherzo’, naturally the listener was expected to adjust to the less familiar twelve tone music of Berg, but once that step had been taken Rachlin had the emotions of both a requiem and occasional waltz rhythms flowing out with intense depth.

Much of the second part of the Concerto is a ‘Cadenza’ for the soloist, but with fairly frequent orchestral interjections, and Rachlin followed Berg’s flights of possibly fearful imagination into what the composer may well have known was to be his own requiem as well as that for the young Manon. The Concerto comes to a stirring climax marked ‘Adagio’ with a set of chorale variations that are inspired by J S Bach. At times complex with Rachlin playing pizzicato with simultaneous bowing; at times spiritual, with instruments of the wind section playing together in the manner of a small organ, there is the gradual crescendo until death triumphs over life and the ethereal angel floats away to Heaven.

To open the second half the BBC SSO played Anton Webern’s orchestration for strings and winds of Schubert’s Six German Dances, D.820. All are positively charming and so illustrative of the way that melodies could flow from Schubert’s pen. Rushed off and scored for piano they were six of many dances that Schubert used to keep the wolf from the door. Ironically after they were rediscovered in 1931, Webern orchestrated them for a flat fee rather than royalties from which he would have done quite well as their popularity far exceeded anything else he wrote.

And so to the symphony of the concert’s title – the Symphony No 5 in C minor, op.67, by Beethoven – and probably the most popular and frequently played of all the symphonies in the orchestral repertoire. The older members of the population will remember the opening motif, dit, dit, dit, dah, being used by the BBC during the Second World War to introduce inspirational broadcasts by Winston Churchill as the four notes were the morse code for the letter V, for Victory. How ironic that Beethoven was arguably the greatest ever German composer!

But in all likelihood it was this symphony in the programme that had the Empire Theatre filled to the rafters. Runnicles launched himself into the work even before the audience were fully settled and gave it a freshness and vibrancy that is often missing in the famous recordings by Karajan and the like in the 1960s. The rhythms were tight and precise, the playing was on the edge and the result was thirty five minutes of sheer joy and excitement. It even passed the ultimate test – the audience stopped coughing.

Maestro Runnicles, haste ye back!