Review: Gurrelieder, and Runnicles

First published in the Guardian on 29 August, 2016

Surely there’s an irony in the fact that some of the sweetest love music ever written — those impossibly tender strings when Waldemar utters the line “extraordinary Tove” — were penned by the man singularly blamed for the collapse of romanticism. But before he headed off into irrevocable atonality, a youngish Arnold Schoenberg made sure he had beaten the romantics at their own subjectively expressive game and created Gurrelieder as a resoundingly ultimate thing. The two-hour mega cantata comprises 11 French horns, four harps, eight flutes — basically imagine a standard symphony orchestra and double it, then add three male choruses, a mixed choir and six vocal soloists.

The sheer bigness made a splendid close to the 2016 Edinburgh International Festival (proper festival stuff, this) but there were deeper reasons why performing Gurrelieder on this stage made an apt last concert for Donald Runnicles’s tenure as chief conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. The Usher Hall was where it all began for the Edinburgh lad, who joined the inaugural Edinburgh Festival Chorus aged 12 for a performance of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, caught the craze of high romanticism and went off to become one of the world’s great conductors of Germanic opera. Musically, too, Gurrelieder made sense, because this is a work on the brink of 19th and 20th centuries grand idioms, simultaneously the overstuffed end of era and the birth of what came next. The unforgettable performances of Runnicles’s past seven years with the BBCSSO have been works positioned directly on either side: Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, Berg’s Wozzeck.

And so this concert summed up the kind of playing that he and this orchestra have developed together — a rich glow at the heart of the strings and a capacity to turn on a dime and power up almighty sounds. He was typically expert with the singers, waiting for breaths without ever sounding like he was waiting, giving the Edinburgh Festival Chorus space for a magnificent dawn chorus, but equally expert was the way he involved the orchestra in the drama, surging up to fill in the emotions that the voices left unsaid.

The soloists were necessarily cast with Wagnerian-sized voices and it takes some doing to swamp the ringing tenor of Simon O’Neill, but Schoenberg’s thick orchestration doesn’t leave much choice and Runnicles ran with it. Anja Kampe was a restrained and rapturous Tove, Thomas Quasthoff delivered the Speaker’s lines with cartoonishly exaggerated sprechstimme and Karen Cargill was a gripping storyteller as the Wood Dove — she had me before she even opened her mouth, that ability to hold the hall with her gaze, then her singing was burnished and supple and vivid.

You might have expected a standing ovation, at least, to mark the end of one of Scotland’s proudest periods in orchestral history. But this was Edinburgh, and this was Runnicles, and he ushered his soloists back onto the stage three times before finally accepting a brief solo bow. No encore, no speech.