Music review: BBC SSO/Runnicles, Mahler 4

Donald Runnicles
Donald Runnicles
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Mahler was a composer of astringent complexity and blinding contrasts, never more so than in his Fourth Symphony, yet in that particular work such defining ingredients express their argumentative power through delineated classical textures and the sublime soprano solo – Das Himmlische Leben – in the visionary finale.

City Halls, Glasgow ****

Both these factors played a crucial part in defining Donald Runnicles’ luminescent reading of the work with the BBC SSO. First and foremost were the crystalline precision and sparkle of the orchestral textures he demanded from the outset: from the strings, clean and focused articulation; from the wind and brass, a piquancy that extracted fascinating new colours from the score – for example, the sudden but exuberant intrusion of a bassoon where it normally lies low.

The effect was one of modernism throwing a spanner in the works of Romanticism, an antagonistic approach, though never overdone, that gave us plenty new thoughts to ponder. Runnicles’ pacing was never predictable – it took the band a little while to tune in – but it was teasingly logical.

There were moments – the third movement for instance – where there simply wasn’t enough girth in the ensemble to sustain the subliminal intensity. But once the finale arrived, and with it a magically subdued soprano Carolyn Sampson, the message of this performance was clearly spelled out – the quiet realisation and ethereal vision of Paradise.

Before that, Sampson and the SSO delighted us with clean-cut Mozartian performances: the Exsultate Jubilate, with its delirious final Alleluia; and aria Voi avete un cor Fedele. Repeated in Edinburgh tomorrow.

KEN WALTON