Mahler 3/Runnicles

Symphony No.3

Karen Cargill (mezzo-soprano)

Edinburgh Festival Chorus (women’s voices)
Royal Scottish National Orchestra Junior Chorus

BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
Donald Runnicles

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 4 August, 2010
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)With Mahler all around us, it is hard now to recall just how infrequent performances of his Third Symphony used to be. Both Barbirolli and Horenstein memorably championed it (in 1969 and 1970 respectively) but possibly because of its daunting scale – its lasts the better part of 100 minutes – the symphony hardly crops up at the Proms with anything like the regularity of Mahler’s other works. So this was something of a special occasion.

Donald Runnicles. Photograph: Johannes IfkovitsIt also marked the recent arrival of the Edinburgh-born Donald Runnicles as Chief Conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, a post he took up last September and holds concurrently with the Music Directorship of Deutsche Oper Berlin. On the evidence of this concert the BBC Scottish has made a canny choice since the vastly experienced Runnicles – seventeen seasons Music Director of San Francisco Opera – is definitely an orchestra builder, and the results were plain to hear in the quality of sound and ensemble. It would be unreasonable to expect the BBCSSO to match the opulence of 2007’s memorable Proms reading from Claudio Abbado and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra but this was more than creditable with splendid individual contributions – notably a superb first-movement trombone solo from Simon Johnson and a quite magical flute solo at the finale’s close from Rosemary Eliot – as well as much fine teamwork from the orchestra as a whole. To hear a Mahler symphony – which had so clearly been thoroughly rehearsed – given this degree of commitment was greatly preferable to some more high-profile orchestras ‘winging’ it under conductors with little real affinity with this music.

Mahler may have commented slightly tongue in cheek “The work is short – in fact, of the greatest concision” but, as Runnicles points out in an interview, the entire length of the symphony is barely as long as many an act of opera. Possibly because of his experience in the opera house, Runnicles seemed at his best in shaping the massive outer movements, sustaining tensions over long spans, allowing the music to expand at significant moments and ramming home their climaxes. In the opening movement, ‘Summer marches in’, there was also a welcome, pussyfooting delicacy to much of the march music, whilst in the finale the rarefied world of Wagner’s “Lohengrin” (specifically its Prelude) seldom seemed far away.

Despite Runnicles adopting the leisurely tempos so clearly indicated by Mahler, there was however insufficient contrast between the second and third movements ‘What the flowers of the meadow tell me’ and the succeeding ‘What the animals of the forest tell me’; the latter required a more overtly rambunctious approach and for all their gracefulness both movements felt under-characterised. The slightly static account of the third movement’s extended posthorn solo lacked something of its lazy, late-summer, over-the-hills-and-faraway loveliness. (Incidentally, Mahler later declared “Perish all programmes” and after this the symphony appeared minus its original detailed explanatory notes).

Karen Cargill. Photograph:  Sloane PhotographyAided by a fine cor anglais (James Horan) and a sensitive first horn (David Flack), the mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill clearly had the right bottom to the voice for Zarathustra’s Night Song and here Runnicles’s experience with singers paid dividends, providing a velvet carpet for his soloist; however, the exuberant opening of the fifth movement cried out for an altogether more carefree treatment – although well-drilled, the contribution of Edinburgh Festival Chorus ladies and RSNO Junior Chorus hardly ‘set the heather alight’.

Any doubts were swept aside by an account of the great string-dominated finale which completely avoided that overly reverential treatment to which it is sometimes subjected. This flowed ever-onwards with a sustained intensity that was truly impressive and even its final peroration had a naturalness and inevitability about it which – for a moment – had one thinking of that final paragraph of Sibelius 7 … of all things! The most auspicious aspects of this reading were the weight and quality of the BBCSSO’s collective response, and Runnicles’s evident ability to build and sustain the outer movements over the largest span.

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