Classical review: BBC SSO

Share this article


THE combination of Wagner and Bruckner is a succulent one. Bruckner's music – in particular his Eighth Symphony – bears such allegiance to Wagner, from his extravagant use of Wagner tubas to his exhaustive layering of strong-minded motifs, that it could so easily bear the hallmarks of infatuation.

So the coupling of Wagner's Siegfried Idyll with Bruckner's Eighth Symphony was a powerful pairing for the BBC SSO under its chief conductor Donald Runnicles.

What made this programme especially alluring was Runnicles' use of the original version of the Wagner, featuring a slim ensemble, as would have fitted on the staircase landing in the composer's house, where he originally presented the work as a surprise birthday present for his wife.

Against the massive armoury of the Bruckner, it acted as a microcosmic entrance into a sound world driven by the potency of the climax – musical structures built like recurring waves which, no matter their scale, pack emotive punch at the inexorable point of breaking.

This reduced Wagner opened up delicious details of texture in a work better known to us for its swelling strings and tonal girth.

Instead, with an ensemble as clearly defined as a Schoenberg chamber symphony, sensitivity and intimacy (if a tad nervous to begin with) were the defining features.

As for the Bruckner, its success lay in a performance centred on a masterly appreciation of its massive building blocks.

The operatic maestro in Runnicles came to the fore, combining a visionary grasp of the big picture with a realisation that Bruckner's panoply of component themes can be conveyed as a matrix of musical dramatis personae.

Where this music can so easily be cast in drier terms, here it was like an opera without words: thrilling, questioning, soulful, and a triumph of innate musicianship.