Classical review: BBC SSO, Glasgow

Donald Runnicles brought spell in SSO top job to an end. Picture: Contributed
Donald Runnicles brought spell in SSO top job to an end. Picture: Contributed
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PUT Donald Runnicles on the podium before the BBC SSO and the response is electric. We’ve known that since Day One of the relationship, and it happened again on Thursday in Runnicles’ final SSO season appearance before stepping down, after seven years, as principal conductor.

BBC SSO | City Halls, Glasgow | Rating ****

This was the conclusion of an SSO two-parter featuring both of Brahms’ piano concertos, the common factor being Russian pianist Denis Kozhukhin. Runnicles took over the reins this week from Thomas Duasgaard in a second and final programme that opened with the Second Concerto and ended with Mahler’s First Symphony.

From the word go, we were captivated: by the immediacy of Kozhukhin’s frank and outgoing response to Brahms’ opening bars, which harnessed the biting, fighting spirit that was to feed through all four highly charged movements; and by the sizzling colour and attack which Runnicles elicited from an edge-of-their-seats SSO.

It wasn’t always the most pristine playing – a few uncharacteristic fumbles from Kozhukin and moments of questionable tuning in the wind – but in terms of spirit, honesty and expressive nuance, this was a performance that stirred the soul at every level.

Pacing is Runnicles’ forte, and he imbued the Mahler with overwhelming emotional fulfilment. From the fragile, colouristic scene-setting of the opening and the swirling lyricism of the inner movements, to the ultimate catharsis of the final bars, this was an exhilarating journey.

It’s a shame the SSO’s journey with Runnicles has come to an end, although he’ll be back periodically as conductor emeritus. Haste ye back, Donald!