Few conductors preface Bruckner’s vast Eighth Symphony with an amuse-bouche before the interval. If they do, they tend to pick one of three options, all of which make sense in different ways. Rarely there might be a new composition. More often you hear Haydn or Mozart, especially from the older guard of Brucknerians like Bernard Haitink, Daniel Barenboim, and so on. Or there’s Bruckner’s most obvious partner, his beloved Wagner. Wagner presents his own problems, of course, in relation to Bruckner. If the Wagner picked is of the ‘bleeding chunks’ variety, should it be chunks from the Ring, Tristan und Isolde, or Parsifal? Each would have a different impact on how the Eighth to follow was heard.

Donald Runnicles © Opus 3 Artists
Donald Runnicles
© Opus 3 Artists

So too was the case with the curveball thrown by Donald Runnicles in this first concert of the Proms season from the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. The Siegfried Idyll isn’t heard all that often, but it worked well here, even in the Albert Hall’s acoustic. Runnicles rightly gave it in the orchestral form Wagner stipulated for performances other than on the staircase at Tribchen, where it was first performed for Cosima’s birthday. Still, with his small orchestra Runnicles drew out the chamber-like quality of this music, which in turn later pointed to the intricacy of Bruckner’s writing, even if not in quite the same way that a Haydn symphony might. Wagner’s tone poem also provided a neat journey from the most intimate of writing – it begins with a solo string quartet – to the full strength of Bruckner’s Götterdämmerung-sized orchestra. In the Idyll Runnicles employed generally quick tempi which nonetheless left space for phrases naturally to ebb and flow, and, just as in the Bruckner, there was great emphasis on clarity of development and colour. As much as he was eager to delineate structure clearly Runnicles was also keen to put this music in Wagnerian context, drawing attention to themes from the Ring and their implied depiction of blissful repose on Brünnhilde’s rock (and in Wagner’s marital home by the side of Lake Lucerne). There was much to enjoy here, both from Runnicles’ shaping of phrases and balances and in the quality of the BBC SSO’s playing.

Bruckner is a Runnicles trademark, and this performance amply displayed why. He has an uncommon ability to pierce through Bruckner’s textures, which in less sympathetic hands can cloy, and to display what is important to the composer’s symphonic processes. In this case it meant more attention was played to wind playing than is often heard, both for soloists and even in the midst of fuller orchestration. This was especially the case in an enlivened Scherzo, in which Runnicles’ attention to detail throughout the orchestra managed to keep momentum going where it can often sag. As much as Runnicles is a no-nonsense Brucknerian, his striking clarity also masked a command of tempo relationships so total as to be unnoticeable. There was no resort to the constant shifts of a Barenboim and yet nothing jarred, Runnicles simply executing a plan that assigned a tempo to a theme and shifted easily between and among them. As in the Wagner there was a precision to balances and the progression of this symphony’s swells, each of Bruckner’s paragraphs well sketched whilst thought lay behind each word. The quality of orchestral playing was consistently high, again with fine contributions from woodwind principals. This was a classically tiered performance, and the crowning brass-playing was therefore crucial, the BBC SSO’s ranks acquitting themselves finely with a well-blended tone surprising in its depth and variation.

This was a Bruckner Eighth that made sense as a whole, largely faultless in purely technical terms, with nothing extraneous to Runnicles’ lightly-held structural rigour. That, perhaps, was the only issue with this performance, that it was so self-contained. Analytical Bruckner is no problem, especially when his symphonies come off coherently (like in the Fifth and Eighth), and indeed it is far preferable to Bruckner that aims for the stars yet is merely misguided. But this was not an Eighth that had put redemption at risk, which for some might seem the most pressing point with this composer’s music in performance. This was revealing, very much so, but not quite revelatory.