Review: BBCSSO, Runnicles, Mahler Ten

First published in the Guardian on 28 September, 2015

There was bittersweetness to the brilliance of this concert: it was the start of Donald Runnicles’s last season as chief conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, and it stung a bit to be reminded just how chiselled and warm, how bold and honed and incisive the orchestra’s sound is under his baton. When Thomas Dausgaard takes over next year he will be inheriting an ensemble in astoundingly good shape.

The big work on the programme was Mahler’s Tenth, that gallingly intimate trunk of a symphony that was left incomplete when the composer died in 1911. It was played here in the standard reconstruction by Deryck Cooke — standard in the sense it’s the version most often performed, but a live account this persuasive is still mighty rare. Runnicles’s narrative was clear, thoughtful and unhistrionic. From the yearning, vulnerable opening viola theme through the second movement’s caustic clusters, the gossamer textures of the Purgatorio through the bleak drum thuds of the fourth movement and the finale’s serene flute solo — through all this Runnicles simply gave each idea space to make its impact. I wonder whether he intended an easier kind of tenderness at the end; Mahler’s ultimately ardent expression of love had a gritted-teeth kind of intensity that I suspect wasn’t quite deliberate.

Eagle-eyed audience members will have spotted a new face at the back of the first violins: a certain James Ehnes, dressed in standard-issue black and playing the Mahler as one of the team. Before the interval he had been a captivating soloist in Glazunov’s Violin Concerto. Ehnes always embraces the spirit of whatever work he is tackling — here he gamely offered huge, husky low melodies and sultry slides between notes — but he also always sounds absolutely himself. His encore was the Presto of Bach’s G-minor solo sonata: fast, feather-light and muscular all at once.