The date had been ringed on many a musical calendar: the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra’s Conductor Emeritus Sir Donald Runnicles’ homecoming to Glasgow, bringing with him a gigantic work from the Germanic repertoire, Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. When he was Chief Conductor, Runnicles pushed the orchestra to new heights, to the delight of Scottish audiences, so understandably Glasgow City Halls was packed out, including the choir stalls, for this signature event. The atmosphere was expectant but no one could have guessed that after an hour and a half of glorious music the entire hall would be struck completely spellbound into a deep awesome silence.

Sir Donald Runnicles

In 1909 Mahler's health was recovering after his heart diagnosis, and he was more able to walk in the mountains, but the memory of his daughter’s death made him unable to return to his lakeside villa. A new spot was found high up in the Dolomites with the composer’s favourite landscape of woods and mountain peaks and a composing hut. Mahler was full of superstition about writing a ninth symphony, yet at the time he wrote that he had more thirst for life than ever. Nevertheless, while this tempestuous work looks back at joyful life, death haunts the score's outer two movements. In fact, Mahler never got to hear the completed work.

Runnicles directed the orchestra with a dynamic urgent verve and the players responded by rising magnificently to the occasion. The second violins crept in tremulously with the first theme, thin but soon blossoming into richness, the music surging into stormy waves of darkness and light. Runnicles seized on each new musical idea with the freshness of a child discovering a new toy. The brass was impressive, five horns giving depth, trumpets and the heavy brass packing a punch, but adding mysterious colouring when muted with intimate passages. Bright flute solos contrasted with rampant timpani, bass drum and bells, the rich dark string sound propelling the crescendos. Runnicles was a study of animation, in his element, riding the seething turbulence.

The inner movements give insight, the first, a rough Ländler, harks back to Viennese waltz, but is disrupted by woodwinds reducing it to a poisonous parody. Taken at speed, it was intoxicating nevertheless, Runnicles swinging his arms sideways to and fro one minute, then both arms aloft as if he wanted to embrace the whole orchestra and whirl it wildly around the hall. The Rondo-Burleske was, if anything, more lively, detail crystal clear with cellos and basses driving the energy from the bottom up, the players heading off full tilt until a trumpet brought relative order, the violins turning lush before a final disruptive blaze of energy.

The puzzle over the final Adagio – whether it is a journey to the bleakest despair or a voyage of miraculous transcendence – is one of the work's enigmatic delights. Runnicles wrung every ounce of passionate energy from his players without wallowing too deeply. The strings were bold and rich with an elegant hymn-like tone, searing Mahler’s agonising score, the conductor driving on each section as if attempting to stave off the inevitable end. It is one of the most famous fade-outs in classical music, but coming at the end of a deeply personal musical journey, it took us all by surprise. The silence when the music finally stopped was completely spellbinding, each of its 30 seconds deepened the glimpse into the infinite, the packed hall so completely still you could have heard a pin drop. No more words are required.