It's always a good idea for symphonic orchestras to play operas from time to time, to give them a taste of bloodcurdling human drama. It's also useful the other way around – for opera orchestras to indulge in symphonic repertoire, to keep a sense of proportion and to experience the spotlight for themselves. Here, Donald Runnicles took the reins of the Berlin Deutsche Oper Orchestra in two mighty pieces, Shostakovich's Cello Concerto no. 1 (composed for his friend Mstislav Rostropovich) and Mahler's Fifth Symphony, with its paean of eternal love for his wife Alma (whom he nastily told to stop composing once they shacked up together. Nice man.).

Donald Runnicles © Simon Pauly
Donald Runnicles
© Simon Pauly

Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto begins in the least concerto-like manner possible: small, trifling, nugatory stuff that makes the listener feel as if they’d been startled awake in the middle of the movement. If you know Shostakovich’s instrumental music this is very familiar territory, (because Shostakovich uses his famous musical four-note-cypher as derived from his own name) but it sounds like he has trapped a few bars from one of his string quartets in a shoebox and let it rattle around until it uses up its gargoyle energies.

Throughout the first movement, the cello seems to be on a mission to disavow its reputation as a seducer, all hints of smouldering sex appeal are replaced with sarcasm and nit-picking. Rasping snarls that you might expect from a plastic trumpet, not a noble instrument of the violin family. Arthur Hornig did extremely well to display this unflattering side of the cello with sincerity, like a painter depicting a badly made chair without correcting its wonky proportions.

The second movement wrong-foots the audience again, with its completely bewitching dissonance – all dusky vapour and shadows, moving in contortions. Shostakovich may want to cock a snoot at the audience, but he wouldn’t do that to the performer, after all a concerto is always a calling card for a soloist, and so there is naturally a thrilling cadenza in which the cellist can present their wares in the time honoured fashion. A thrilling performance, all told, with the remaining movements fused together, often returning to the brittle, percussive textures with startling effect.

As Mahler’s Fifth symphony begins it almost immediately obliterates the now-piecemeal-seeming Cello Concerto. A towering edifice, made of giant chunks of sound. Mahler’s vision is presented at first as stately and grandiose, though his ideas ramble wildly, only barely retaining a coherence throughout that belongs to one overarching conception.

If Mahler had died in a psychiatric ward we would forever look back at his music as offering obvious clues to his mental fragility. His Fifth Symphony seems an almost blatant expression of internal torture, with constant shifting from hysterical glee to monumental gloom. This music is a gift to an orchestra, with every player given parts that feel as if their music alone is the pivot and axis of the whole symphony.

Watching an orchestra, I always choose my favourite performers to watch, those who are most expressive or distinctive. The difference in the orchestra’s faces from the concerto to the symphony was a sure sign that they would wring every drop from this megalith. Eyebrows angled in pathos, bodies swaying in tempo, broad grins everywhere in evidence.

The driving momentum of the whole thing suddenly froze with the Adagietto. Sadly, that section is now overfamiliar, and it would take a pretty wayward interpretation for me to hear it anew. Rhythmic unity was ensured by Runnicles’ huge and jagged gestures, but it seemed contrary to the luscious sound. The Adagietto returns in the final movement, though now transformed as if the same thought had occurred to Mahler on a day with nicer weather. 

The composer and teacher Nadia Boulanger once said something along the lines of “if a performance goes well, the performer should go unnoticed, even the composer should, so that all that remains is the music.” This is almost how I feel about Donald Runnicles’ performance as a conductor. Not a bold interpretation to shed new light on the music, merely a clear, solid presentation of two contrasting classics. And that’s sometimes all you need.