Extraordinary weekend of intrigue and majestic music

Donald Runnicles
The Herald Scotland

By Michael Tumelty 

With two works on the programme, Donald Runnicles' 60th birthday concert with the BBC SSO on Thursday night was everything it might have been, not least because it threw a spotlight on Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante in E Flat, K 364.

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 emphasis 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 toward veracity, was Runnicles' and the SSO's Beethoven Ninth, where intellectual argument and drama, rather than atmospherics, dominated the first movement. Where long-range propulsions 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.