Donald Runnicles began the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra’s 80th season with Mahler’s Tenth and chose to finish it with all the excitement and optimism of his First Symphony, preceded by another Germanic colossus, Brahms' Piano Concerto no. 2 in B flat major. Runnicles has been the BBCSSO’s Chief Conductor for seven years, and there was a full-house turnout of support to mark the occasion of his last series concert in Glasgow in this role, although he will return from time to time as Conductor Emeritus.

Donald Runnicles © Simon Pauly
Donald Runnicles
© Simon Pauly
Young Russian soloist Denis Kozhukhin describes Brahms’ First Piano Concerto as a bit of a battle between pianist and orchestra, but 20 years of composition and growing musical acclaim brought a confidence to the second with its four full and varied movements. In this work, the orchestra plays an almost equal role to the soloist as romantic melodies are developed and passed around. Starting with just a single horn, Kozhukhin began with rich romantic chords, and as the strings picked up the themes, excitement grew with Runnicles urging the players on through the series of astonishing climaxes. At one point it looked like the six double basses were literally wrestling with their instruments to get all the notes out in this meaty performance in which the players gave their all and Runnicles appeared to love every note. Kozhukhin played with a mature muscular style, completely lost in the music and producing a golden romantic sound. In the slower third movement, after a long orchestral introduction, with a lovely theme for cellos Kozhukhin rippled at the keys, as Martin Storey’s solo cello soared into life. Kozhukhin watched the conductor keenly, but had a line of sight to Storey with both soloists feeding off the other. The final lively Allegretto began with a jovial theme from the piano, taken up by the players with gusto, almost like a café-orchestra at times. Runnicles was mesmerising to watch, a physical ‘two arms’ conductor coaxing every expression out of the music and responding to Kozhukhin’s astonishing performance. At the end, conductor and soloist embraced each other like long lost friends.

Returning to the hall after the interval, we passed three trumpets warming up in a side room at the back, the unsung heroes of Mahler’s Symphony no. 1 in D major. Beginning out of nothing, depicting awakening nature and reminiscent of the start of Rheingold, the shimmering strings and cuckoo calls on the clarinet, which give a signature to this work, created a magical world. The offstage fanfares blended seamlessly with the drama on the platform, and drama there was aplenty in this joyous symphony. Runnicles kept the opening spell alive and controlled the development precisely so that when the climax of the first movement came, it was as if spring itself had burst into life through the hall. The jovial theme in the second movement literally bounced with energy with things only calming down slightly with the solo double bass playing the minor key Frère Jacques theme in the third, but not for long as the lively klezmer band emerged with cheeky swagger in the woodwind. The last began more turbulently, but built to a series of climaxes, at one point the oboes playing straight out towards us over their music stands. It is a wondrous finale as just when you think an orchestra really can’t do any more without bursting, the eight horns stand up for the final fanfares, blowing the cobwebs away – and yes, some dusty specks did indeed drift downwards from the ceiling! 

Runnicles simply inhabited the music, visibly living every note, swinging both his arms, using every inch of his podium and encouraging the players to wring every nuance from the music in an utterly mesmerising performance. If he did not have both feet off the ground, it really must have been close. The gallery behind the orchestra was packed, and I envied them their head-on view of the conductor. The orchestra gave it absolutely everything, strings energetically leaning forwards into their instruments, precise woodwind and who couldn’t be excited by those eight horns and brass? Although Runnicles will be back occasionally, he was greeted with a standing ovation, a warm Glasgow farewell marking the end of a successful era for the BBC Scottish.