Review: BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra with Thomas Hamspon & Donald Runnicles

First published in the Guardian on 21 September, 2013

City Halls, Glasgow

Donald Runnicles is a conductor who thinks operatic: grand sweep, singing lines. Even when he’s tackling a behemoth of the symphonic repertoire – Mahler’s Fifth, in this case – he shapes phrases so that they always sing, never adding a breath where a vocalist wouldn’t, never propping up a long melody on life-support. There have been times when his broad lyricism seemed to bypass the finer details of an orchestral score, but not here. This was an attentive, lucid account of Mahler’s symphony with some staggeringly good playing from the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra to open their 2013-14 season.

Runnicles avoided overblown psychodrama and told the score straight. The first movement was defiant from the start, flecked with graceful nostalgia and free of barbed cynicism. The second’s storm was unguarded; the Adagietto grew from a whisper into a tender love song – as the emotional climax of the work it was brilliantly understated. The finale closed with a blast of irrepressible optimism. “What,” Mahler wondered before the Fifth’s premiere, “is the public to make of this chaos in which new worlds are forever being engendered only to crumble into ruin the next moment?” This performance made sense of it not so much by prodding Mahler’s conflicted personalities as celebrating the gamut of human experience.

The evening opening with Britten’s overture The Building of the House, ratcheting up tension to a great denouement in the last brassy chord. Before the interval Thomas Hampson sang Mahler songs – five from Des Knaben Wunderhorn plus the shimmering Ging’ heut morgen uber’s Feld from Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen. His approach was modest and intimate, but his voice sounded too washed out to deliver all the colour he strived for. That came from the orchestra: softly during the songs, blazingly during the symphony.