The BBC Proms 2013 began with some of the best of English composers. Tonight for Prom 28 it was the turn of some of Scotland’s finest, as Donald Runnicles conducted the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in a performance of James MacMillan’s Violin Concerto. There were plenty of old favourites from Beethoven and Strauss Jr. on the programme as well – although the MacMillan was by far the most original and intriguing performance.

Donald Runnicles conducting the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in Prom 29 (Tannhäser) © BBC/Chris Christodoulou
Donald Runnicles conducting the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in Prom 29 (Tannhäser)
© BBC/Chris Christodoulou

The orchestral balance was well struck in Johann Strauss’s 1867 waltz On the Beautiful Blue Danube. The expansive A major theme that keeps returning was swept along by the strings. Light but energetic, the performance possessed an engaging pace and conjured the elegance and excitement of the waltz dance well. Beautiful and relaxing though it was, the Strauss was perhaps a strange pairing with what came next.

MacMillan ‘s 2009 Violin Concerto was penned in memory of his mother. But typically of the composer, it’s no saccharine tribute, more a soulful and subtle exploration. The three movements – “Dance”, “Song”, “Song and Dance” – express something about humans’ relationships with each other. The violin soloist’s part is sometimes uncomfortable, sometimes moves into a sweet melody (the “Song”) and sometimes seems to have little logic at all. The “Dance” movement does have a dance-like quality but it verges on macabre, with strangled brass and a harsh violin part. It’s certainly intriguing to listen to. The most memorable movement is the final one. The music becomes increasingly erratic, members of the orchestra speak a sort of chant in German, then a disembodied voice floats out with the same words. There’s something subversive about its inclusion in the concerto, the voice being so much more powerful than the violin. The soloist was the Siberian violinist Vadim Repin, who premièred the Concerto in 2010. He revelled in its changeable character, from sinister to angry, to some recognisably folk influence. The sensitive ending to the first movement, which includes some ghostly harmonics, was particularly effective. It was wise to put the MacMillan before the interval, because it would have been a difficult piece to follow.

The second half had a grander character, returning to familiar Beethoven works. The 1807 overture to Heinrich von Collin’s 1802 play Coriolan is ripe with suspense; its melody refuses to develop as quickly as the ear expects. The orchestra drew this out well. The overture’s well structured to weave a narrative of danger, tenderness and eventually exhaustion, and Runnicles shaped it well into a satisfying performance.

There can be few more recognisable pieces than Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. That makes it even more of a challenge to pull off. Tonight it was enthusiastically played but lacked any standout quality. The repeated four-note motif was neither as insistent or as edgy as I’ve heard it. The brass achieved a triumphant presence in the finale but there wasn’t a lot of depth in the strings in the first movement, and their style sometimes sounded a little clipped. More off-puttingly, there was more than one occasion in the third where the orchestra were not entirely together – possibly because Runnicles’ conducting was not at its most precise. This said, it proved a bombastic piece to finish an entertaining programme and the audience gave it a hearty reception. After all that, the haunting female voice of the MacMillan concerto was what made an imprint, on my mind at least.