There are some works that appear year after year in a subtly different, equally sumptious incarnation. Strauss’s Four Last Songs ranks among that number. In 2010, Sir Simon Rattle, Karita Mattila and the Berliner Philharmoniker brought us this soulful masterpiece for Soprano and orchestra in one of the season’s most memorable Proms. This year it was the turn of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Donald Runnicles to deliver Strauss’ classic, along with the World Premiere of Robin Holloway’s evocative Fifth Concerto for orchestra that surprised many in its drama.

Donald Runnicles © BBC / John Wood
Donald Runnicles
© BBC / John Wood

It’s a shame that we’ve had to wait so long for Holloway’s Fifth, which was finished in 2009. This Concerto for Orchestra is particularly dramatic, portraying the ‘essence’ of life’s most intense experiences rather than being programmatic. The orchestra does, as the title suggests, breathe as one instrument; and a particularly versatile one at that.

The opening movement features repeated upward moving phrases led mostly by the violins. The dense rhythmic and harmonic structures not only depict the darkness the composer intended, but have an essentially stirring presence; the smokey musical shapes woven out of woodwind and string flutterings are elusive and thus fascinating. Some fine trombone playing initiated the increased brass involvement in the second movement, which is flanked by a scherzo of light but considered temperement rather than superficial game-play. Emphatic flashes of brilliance in the third, which is apparently inspired by a bright-red pillarbox, led to a brief, bridging fourth movement and richly coloured extended finale.

It’s an uncommonly engaging work and yet insubstantial in terms of melody – memorable in its capacity to paint life in busy, vivid technicolour. It would not be out of place as a film score, and outstrips last year's Holloway Proms Première, Reliquary - Scenes from the life of Mary Queen of Scots, in its musical intrique. The composer, as usual, took his audience’s applause in person, thanking the BBC SSO heartily; well deserved praise considering the variety and drama they coaxed out of Holloway’s vast and complex score.

Hillevi Martinpelto’s spicy, multi-textured interpretation of the Four Last Songs reflected their world-weariness and adulation of nature’s mysteries effectively. It would have been satisfying to hear phrases shaped more fluently in September and Beim Schlafengehen but the soaring freedom of the melodies sat comfortably in Martinpelto’s slghtly brassy upper register. She acquired warmth as she went along, moving the final Im Abendrot (at Sunset) up a notch in quality from the first, Fruhling (Spring). The BBC SSO revelled in the indulgent, almost transcendental beauty of Strauss’ score, producing a dynamic and varied sound; Runnicles has developed a particularly impassioned conducting idiom that seems to rub off on his players.

A second half composed only of a single work can feel like an endurance feat, especially when it is one of Brahms’ more expansive symphonies, his second. Although the returning first subject poses a delightful melody, the first two movements are musically reserved. However, Runnicles took the wise choice with a lively, delicate approach to these opening sections, his excellent Guest Leader David Adams infecting his players with a vigour that retained enough delicacy to highlight Brahms’s elegant phrasing.

There is a definite strain of melancholy through this work, as Brahms himself admitted. Fortunately it was only in the Adagio that the orchestra allowed this sadness to overbear us; the following Allegretto returned with some ebullient, seemingly incessant quaver passages in the violins that restored positivity. As with the Strauss, the Second Symphony warmed up as it went along; the Allegro con Spirito finale was true to its ‘con Spirito’ direction, moving on from the fine counterpoint in the fourth movement to let a choppy, intricately figured Double Bass underlay drive us home to a sweeping finale. It’s a triumphant end to an otherwise pleasant but not outstanding Symphony.

Crucially, Runnicles and the orchestra had managed to inject the freshness of that finale into the preceding movements too. They moved through rapid string pizzicato, fleeting lyrical melodies and moments of deep elegiac strain, each mood seeping into every corner of the Albert Hall in a way that few orchestras manage. A surprisingly successful end to an unsurprisingly impressive Prom.

****1