Conducting a symphony written for you as a birthday gift must be a particularly special experience, and the temptation to indulge must have been very high for Donald Runnicles, in Monday night’s première of James MacMillan’s Symphony no. 4. That he didn’t is a testament to him, and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, who followed his considered, nuanced direction to create a wonderful performance.

Donald Runnicles © Simon Pauly
Donald Runnicles
© Simon Pauly

Billed as “ancient and modern”, MacMillan’s fourth exploration of the symphonic form is more abstract, blending a number of themes in a single movement progressing from slow to fast. The ancient is inspired by Robert Carver, while the modern has the hallmarks of MacMillan, blending the ethereal with Scottish influence.

From the very opening, Runnicles and the orchestra demanded full attention, creating a hushed, otherworldly feel, deftly navigating the themes (a particular nod to Lynda Cochrane, making the most of a jagged piano part) before moving into an impassioned wash of strings with more than a touch of Gorecki and Pärt about it. The “ancient” themes were a delight when they appeared, with Runnicles and the orchestra taking great care to balance the light non-vibrato strings emerging from the back desks of the violas with the modern, highlighting the interweaving of multiple themes. Whether following the various themes around the orchestra, or allowing the overall sound to wash over, there was something to savour either way.

As the music drove forwards there were some lovely pared back moments, evoking bird calls, church bells, and of course some very snappy Scotch snaps! The themes continued to bounce off each other, grown in size and stature by the orchestra until the cellos emerged with a melody given richness and warmth, leading back to that minimalist-inspired territory.

A kettledrum tolling sounded a touch macabre for a birthday gift, threatening the start of a more funereal than celebratory ending of the piece. However, the orchestra never allowed it to become maudlin, maintaining a determined focus which allowed Runnicles to drive the music on to a triumphant climax, with the percussion enjoying a moment of ecstasy, before dying away gently.

Perhaps pairing a brand new work with something so entirely familiar in head and heart is unfair; the former has no previous interpretations to compare against, it carries no baggage with it to the audience. Alternatively, the orchestra’s familiarity with the former may risk complacency, a feeling that the “hard part” is over. It certainly felt like both these factors came into play in this performance of Mahler’s great Symphony no. 5 in C sharp minor.

It started well, with Mark O’Keeffe’s wonderful trumpet solo coming from nowhere, thanks to imperceptibly minute opening gestures from Runnicles. But then, after a taut but delicate opening, things became murky. It felt as if Runnicles didn’t have the orchestra’s full attention, particularly from the strings, meaning he had to work harder than he should have. While the trumpet solos were particularly fine, the obbligato horn was at times on the brash side of bright, a quality that remained until the final movement. The first two movements struggled to find cohesion, although there were some lovely moments, and by the end of the second movement the orchestra were moving together, with the brass chorale entry being resplendent.

The brief pause between the second and third movements appeared to allow for something of a regrouping, and the Scherzo was considerably improved, with a lovely lilt. The brass section was clearly enjoying itself, although at times a closer eye on Runnicles would have beneficial, while the woodwind created some warm klezmer-like tones. It was a little difficult to hear the pizzicato strings in the otherwise particularly lovely waltz sections, but these were minor complaints in a fine Scherzo that finished with a flourish. As a result the Adagietto, fading in from nothing, was even more powerful than anticipated, with Runnicles once more resisting the temptation to indulge and setting a sensible tempo that ensured the sound had both energy and feeling. The strings, at last coming into their own, ebbed and flowed with emotion, building up to a magnificent climax, full of warmth and passion.

The clarion call of the horn to herald the start of the Rondo-Finale was bright, yet warm, and what followed was stately and warm, though the quick tempo didn’t always sit well with the strings, particularly the cellos and double basses. Undeterred, Runnicles drove the orchestra on to a thrilling climax, the return of the brass chorale from the second movement, here absolutely stunning. It was a blistering finish to a good performance that showed hints of being much, much more.