Review: BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra with Donald Runnicles and James Ehnes

First published in the Guardian on 13 December, 2013

City Halls, Glasgow

At the heart of this concert by Donald Runnicles and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra was an staggeringly powerful performance of Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto, with playing so eloquent and direct from Canadian violinist James Ehnes that it just about eclipsed the rest of the programme.

Which was no small feat, considering that the concert’s second half contained John Adams’s noisy, glittering orchestral showpiece City Noir. Runnicles opened the three-movement symphony with a raucous blast: a sizzling shock of brash colour and sheer force. But the vitality didn’t quite hold up and the orchestra’s jazz licks sounded a little square; only the steamy sax solos and woozy trumpet lines stood out through the first movements. By the frenetic finale, though, the winds and the mesh of clattering strings started to really gel into a seductive, foot-stomping cacophony.

The programme opened with Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony in a rustic, slightly chaotic rendition. The slow introduction was deadly slow, and when the main Allegro kicked in, the sound was fibrous and free-wheeling. This was fun, boisterous Beethoven, slightly rough around the edges and the antithesis of a spruce period-instrument account. The second movement ebbed and swelled, and the third movement’s short phrases sounded clipped and off-kilter. The finale careered home with vigour and bravado.

But it was Ehnes’s soulful, impeccable, engulfing Shostakovich that made this concert unforgettable. His control and colour range were masterful: the sound was woody and dark, at turns urgent, generous and vulnerable, and the long, troubled phrases that underpin this concerto unfurled as if without a beginning or an end. The cadenza was devastating frank, and seemed to consume him. The orchestra responded with icy quiet passages, heartbreaking tenderness in the passacaglia and flashes of brutality. The performance prompted a rare standing ovation, and rightly so.