Classical review: BBC SSO: Sibelius & Beethoven

The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and Chief Conductor Donald Runnicles. Picture: BBC
The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and Chief Conductor Donald Runnicles. Picture: BBC
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IF GOOD orchestral programmes are, as many conductors will tell you, about taking the listener on a journey of a lifetime, then this one came the closest I can think of in recent times to attaining that challenging ideal.

BBC SSO: Sibelius & Beethoven

Eden Court, Inverness

*****

From a starting point of Sibelius’ great patriotic hymn Finlandia, Donald Runnicles and the BBC SSO led us via the golden landscape of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, then the elemental labyrinth that is Sibelius’ single-movement last symphony (No 7), to a final outburst of resolution and liberation in Beethoven’s overture “Leonore No 3”. Every level of expression was encountered, every emotional nook and cranny explored.

Forget the fact this was achieved remarkably well within the brick-hard acoustics of Eden Court. Such was the power and intensity of these performances, not even such physical constraints could extinguish the fire that lit every consuming moment.

Both Finlandia and Leonora No 3, acting as bookends so to speak, possessed a commonality of optimism and exhilaration: down-to-earth exhortations – played with resolute passion and flights of bristling, individual virtuosity – that were respectively launch pad and landing strip for the beauty, fantasy and spiritual vigour of the major centrally positioned works.

Runnicles’ shaping of the Beethoven Violin Concerto was completely at one with soloist Alina Pogostkina, who breathed fresh flavours and natural musicality into this well-worn masterpiece. A different auditorium would have added a further rosy dimension to the violin tone, but even without that the Russian-born violinist found all the lustre and lyrical expansiveness required to mould and colour this substantial concerto. The SSO followed her every move.

But if anything represented the meaty core of this musical journey, it was the remarkable achievement of Sibelius in constructing a final symphony that is a tantalisingly concise resolution of his symphonic output, and Runnicles’ and the SSO’s success in realising the essential turmoil and ultimate constraint of a symphony that can still baffle us in the wrong hands.

In the course of 22 minutes, and by ingenious metrical trickery, the music shifts magically between tempi, almost by sleight of hand.

Runnicles encompassed these subtleties entirely in a performance that was impeccable in its control of the central gravitational inevitability, that recognised the importance of the recurring trombone solo, and which harnessed the terse universality of the symphony’s blunt message.

Even now, as in Inverness of Friday, the abrupt ending puzzles listeners.

Seen on 20.02.15