Classical review: BBC SSO: Donald Runnicles, City Halls, Glasgow

THE BBC SSO are going to miss Donald Runnicles when he steps down as chief conductor at the end of this season.

Donald Runnicles. Picture: Contributed

BBC SSO: Donald Runnicles | Rating: **** | City Halls, Glasgow

His presence raises their game like few other maestri. The strings sit visibly on the edge of their seats, the brass and wind are red hot and responsive, and the resulting unanimity is both even and visceral. The orchestra acts as one, emitting a confidence that is tangible, spontaneous and thoroughly compelling to the listener.

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Thursday’s fulfilling programme of Debussy, MacMillan and Beethoven was a prime example of what Runnicles does best, which is to find original touches in such standard works as Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faun and Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony, and to apply inspired conviction to such newer repertoire as James MacMillan’s 2010 Violin Concerto, receiving its Scottish premiere here with dedicatee Vadim Repin as soloist.

The concerto is a tribute to the composer’s late mother, which explains the enigmatic smatterings of folk and children’s song (several very obvious “nickety-nackety-noos” from The Wee Cooper O’ Fife), the strangely personal German text that is vocalised by the men of the SSO, and in general the raw volatility that can, at any one time, express extreme anger and reflective beauty simultaneously.

Runnicles, Repin and the SSO were an electrifying partnership in a performance poised between a sweet-scented, positively-defined reading of the Debussy and Runnicles’ instinctively-paced Beethoven, which evoked colouristic charm and symphonic solidity in equal measure.