BBCSO Runnicles

Drei Hymnen, Op.71
Symphony No.8 in C minor [1890 version, ed. Nowak]

Christine Brewer (soprano)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Donald Runnicles

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 8 April, 2005
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

As relative opposites of German Romantic culture, Richard Strauss and Bruckner offer interesting contrasts in terms of concert programming – such as this concert brought out to a convincing degree.

The Four Last Songs apart, Strauss’s orchestral songs feature surprisingly seldom in performance: certainly “Drei Hymnen” is a rarity, but an enjoyable and – almost in spite of itself – revealing one. The poetry of Friedrich Hölderlin features so prominently in post-war music that it is hard to imagine a time when it was respected but rarely set. Composed in 1921, Strauss’s trio is a marked transition between the opulence of his creative height (essentially the decade 1905-15) and the elegant if oftenbland consistency of the music in its wake. Significantly, he avoids poetry from Hölderlin’s period of crisis as well as the deceptively innocent ‘Scardinelli’ verse written after his retreat from the world.

Those that Strauss did choose have an effulgence to which he responds in full measure: whether the blithe affirmation of ‘Hymne an die Liebe’, the bittersweet aura of ‘Rückkehr in die Heimat’ (though its resonance of loss, even alienation is pointedly glossed over), or the restrained passion of ‘Die Liebe’. Music that is easy to render inattentively or unthinkingly – but with Christine Brewer projecting the vocal line with a burnished assurance, and Donald Runnicles ensuring an orchestral balance that never risked becoming diffuse, this was a performance which presented the work in the most positive light.

The BBC Symphony has played little Bruckner since its association with the late Günter Wand. Their performances of the Eighth Symphony were the highpoints of that association – and, a decade on, remain a hard act to follow. While not evincing the same spiritual dimension, Runnicles’s account was as satisfying as it was cogent – and if a greater expressive reach took time to focus, this is surely in keeping with the nature of the work itself. There was little to quibble with formally in the opening Allegro moderato, relatively swift and self-contained as to seem more than usually preludial, though in no sense lightweight – as the vicarious impact of the climaxes in the development and reprise made plain, while some less than euphonious Wagner Tuba playing was not encountered subsequently. Taken at a robust but flexible tempo, the scherzo’s interlocking ostinatos were trenchantly articulated, and with the trio evincing a mystery and awe that was the more affecting for its absence of false piety.

Fine as these movements were, the latter two ‘upped the stakes’ considerably. Runnicles’s was not an Adagio of the ultimate in metaphysical import, but it followed through the long-range tonal trajectory with unfailing insight, and confirmed that – as with the greatest Renaissance and Baroque masters – Bruckner’s spirituality is the greater for its meticulous placing of every detail. A pity, perhaps, that the shortened Nowak edition was preferred, as the greater formal breadth of Haas would have been heard to advantage here. On the other hand, Runnicles made light of the discontinuities that so often beset the finale’s development in this edition – the anguished manipulation of themes and cadences seeming part of an inevitable whole. Indeed, in its unaffected control of momentum, the movement felt a world away from the exaggerated portentousness that Lorin Maazel saw fit to impose in his recent LSO account – building to a peroration the more uplifting for its complete absence of rhetoric.

His previous appearances with the BBCSO having amply confirmed his Wagnerian credentials, it was heartening to hear Runnicles’s symphonic prowess so impressively demonstrated; a confirmation that will hopefully be reinforced by further regular collaborations between this orchestra and conductor.

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