Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: 4 August, 2014
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
An enticing juxtaposition of contemporaneous masterpieces, brought all the closer given there was no interval, the Mahler completed in 1909 and the Vaughan Williams the following year in which he shakes hands musically with a distinguished and influential English predecessor from the 16th-century, Thomas Tallis (c.1505-1585). One of Tallis’s glorious hymn-like melodies serves as the basis for Vaughan Williams’s mystic and ecstatic contemplation upon it. Donald Runnicles and the strings of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra were fully conversant with the swells and distances of this timeless score (the second, smaller ensemble – four violins, pairs of violas and cellos, and a single double bass – placed to the rear of the platform acting as a distant response, and the solo lines of the string quartet emerging from within the full group), radiant, rapt and spacious. If Donald Runnicles slightly pushed-through the biggest peak, this was overall a richly expressive account, shapely and inevitable, coming to rest on a perfectly judged diminuendo.
Runnicles and the BBCSSO have given the Proms some special performances in recent years – Daphnis and Chloe, Elgar 1 and Mahler 3, for example, and just the evening before this Prom a powerfully unified Mozart Requiem, notable for the outstanding contribution of the National Youth Choir of Scotland – and now a compelling Mahler 9. Yet some understandable gnashing of teeth was heard in the days following the launch of Proms 2014, with seven of Mahler’s eleven Symphonies (that tally including Das Lied von der Erde and the unfinished Tenth) seeming excessive given his music is now so commonplace, yet there is not a note by Haydn or Mendelssohn. That said, Mahler 9 proved the perfect choice and Runnicles got under its musical skin.
This was a reading notably and refreshingly free of subjectivity; we were not in the company of a composer wallowing in self-pity (although Mahler had every reason to do so) or proclaiming his last rites (he was, after all, planning another Symphony), for Runnicles saw to it that from the very opening bars the first movement was genuinely symphonic as well as ‘walking’ and ‘accommodating’ (Andante comodo), the music’s regret and rages integrated into a whole, an unfurling processional of remarkable structure and profound expression. Runnicles cannily ensured that the last few bars were not signalling the end but moving into new territory, and more was to follow … something lost on a relative few in the audience who clapped insensitively, as they would the next two movements, with no concern for the Symphony as a totality and also scant regard for any of their fellow-concertgoers’ need to reflect and anticipate.
The dance sequences of the second movement opened in rustic and courtly terms, Runnicles taking an even-handed approach, not as brusque or edgy as can be the case but with many elegant turns and vivid details, and with later impetuousness making its mark. There have been more-vehement and more-ironic accounts of the succeeding ‘Rondo-Burleske’ but Runnicles caught well its devious urbanity and the spiritual oasis at its mid-point, and – with a poker-player’s bluff – made sure that the drive of the frenzied coda had been saved for. And then to the Adagio finale, flowing and noble, much distinction made between full-toned congregation and the lontano (different from Vaughan Williams’s) of the faraway world of resigned acceptance that intercedes and becomes more dominant before a massive build to the transcendental climax and the ‘fading of the light’ that informs the last few minutes, chiming perfectly – if with audience whispers, creaks and thuds – to this being 100 years to the day since the conflict we now know as The First World War was declared.
The rapport between the BBCSSO (excellent as a unit and in solos) and Runnicles was palpably close, and he led an unsentimental, clear-sighted account (not reaching 80 minutes – so many Mahler 9s these days are much longer and can be so forlornly valedictory) and which could be discussed in the same breath as Kubelík’s (and that is high praise), notable for its spirit, resolve, flexibility, passion and, above all, its cohesiveness … and at least the ultimate silence was observed until Runnicles lowered his baton.
- Broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 (available on BBC iPlayer for thirty days afterwards)
- BBC Proms www.bbc.co.uk/proms