Timelessness was cited as a theme for the programme of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra’s second visit to the Royal Albert Hall for the Proms last night. The two pieces on offer were virtually contemporaneous, although the two composers were at very different stages in their lives; one with many decades remaining, the other, facing the prospect of a life cut short by a heart condition.

Donald Runnicles © BBC/Chris Christodoulou
Donald Runnicles
© BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis seeks timelessness by marrying together the old and the new. It is now so well-loved that it can only be considered a success, and yet this brings a challenge of its own for performers, in particular the avoidance of cliched or hackneyed interpretations. In this, Runnicles and the BBCSSO were entirely successful. I heard elements that had previously escaped my notice in this nuanced and sensitive performance; the muted second orchestra played almost entirely without vibrato, sounding like a viol consort against the more impassioned main body of players. A pin drop could have been heard in the solo quartet sections, which had foreshadowing of Górecki in places. Runnicles opted to push the players on in the tutti sections, which kept the music from self-indulgent territory, and there was a furious energy to the climactic moments. It was clear that Runnicles and his orchestra knew each other inside out.

It was not always as clear during the great work of the evening, Mahler’s Symphony No 9 in D major. This was the last symphony Mahler completed; his Tenth was left in short score when he died, two years after the Ninth’s completion. Though the scoring is modest in comparison to earlier Mahler symphonies, the scope is immense. In places, it seems as if Mahler is staring death in the face, although given the composer’s lifelong obsession with mortality, this is perhaps not as fatalistic as often presented.

The performance began with a fluttering, light touch, which highlighted the darkness in the first movement’s second theme. From this we were catapulted through frenzy and foreboding, dance and funeral march and subdued unrest, before an almost imperceptible shift took us back into the more hopeful major. The brass fanfares towards the end of the movement were fantastically intrusive, driving us back to frenzy before returning to a serene finish. This was deeply unstable music, confidently handled by Runnicles to maximum effect.

This confidence wasn’t quite sustained over the inner two movements, although both started strongly enough. The second movement opened with a lovely roughness to the strings, but the brass seemed to struggle to keep up. There were some wonderfully overblown time changes which highlighted the deliberate ridiculousness of the music. The third movement also had great opening energy in the strings, but again the brass seemed to struggle to keep up (although there was some thumpingly good moments from the trombones and tuba), a problem which spread across the orchestra, and Runnicles control of the orchestra seemed to waver until the close of the movement, when both he and the orchestra suddenly seemed to wake up.

Perhaps they were anticipating the final movement, which was absolutely sublime. Impassioned and rich in sound from the beginning, it felt as if the sun was setting, literally and metaphorically, before being followed by the dark of night. Runnicles and the orchestra perfectly communicated the sense of Mahler raging against his fate, before accepting the inevitable, as the music gently dissolved into a calm nothing. The silence that followed the final notes felt like an eternity; no one wanted to break the timelessness we had experienced.