Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Edinburgh International Festival (3): Skride/Vogler/BBC SSO/Runnicles - Webern, Brahms, and Strauss, 31 August 2009

Usher Hall

Webern – Im Sommerwind
Brahms – Double concerto for violin and violoncello in A minor, op.102
Strauss – Don Quixote, op.35

Baiba Skride (violin)
Jan Vogler (violoncello)
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
Donald Runnicles (conductor)

This concert, surprisingly sparsely attended, took place on the eve of Donald Runnicles’s accession to the chief conductorship of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. It would seem, from both this programme and a glance at plans for next season, that Runnicles is, quite rightly, keen to impart his great experience in the core German repertoire. Webern’s very early Im Sommerwind seemed, however, an odd choice with which to open. It is worth hearing occasionally, but how much more of a statement it would have been to commence with one of the composer’s many bejewelled masterpieces, than with this prolix – surely the only instance in Webern’s output – piece of ersatz Strauss. Programming complaints aside, Runnicles imparted a Wagnerian glow to the opening, coloured by would-be Straussian harmonic deviations – and, interestingly, odd hints of Debussy too. The BBC SSO’s horns sounded very Straussian, bar the odd unfortunate cracked note. The strings sometimes possessed a greater depth than at other times, but at their best were impressive, as were leader Elizabeth Layton’s solos. If the music stopped and started a bit, that reflects the work itself rather than the performance as such.

In Baiba Skride and Jan Vogler, the orchestra welcomed two fine soloists for the Brahms double concerto. The orchestral opening was measured, indeed a touch stiff, but Vogler’s passionate cello entry, matched – well, almost – by Skride’s response, seemed to rub off upon Runnicles and his players. Theirs, though not necessarily the soloists’, was a Brahms of summer brightness rather than autumnal mahogany, closer to Beethoven than one often hears. I am not sure how apt this ultimately is, but at least the BBC SSO proved impressively full of tone. The richness of the soloists’ tone was immediately apparent in the songful opening in octaves to the slow movement. It flowed as an Andante without sounding all-too-fashionably brisk. The woodwind sound for the exquisite second subject once again reminded me of Beethoven. Unfortunately there was a very noticeable slip in the movement’s final chord, although these things happen. Wisely, even if this could hardly have been the reason for doing so, the finale was taken attacca. Again, lyricism was to the fore for both Skride and Vogler: a lyricism that could encompass both wistfulness and verve. There was a nice contrast in their presentations of the principal theme: the cello more playful, the violin more serene. Vogler’s first voicing of the second theme was simply perfect, as was Skride’s response. However, if the first tutti exuded testosterone, later on there were a few signs of flagging.

Don Quixote had the second half to itself. Vogler was joined by the orchestra’s excellent principal violist, Scott Dickinson, far from outshone by his partner in crime. And indeed, there were many other well-taken opportunities for orchestral solos: for instance, oboe and clarinet during the Introduction, the leader once again showing a good rapport with Vogler during the ensuing statement of the Theme, and implacable kettledrums during the funeral march. Ensemble work was often equally fine, for instance with the pair of bassoons depicting the Benedictine monks, the archaic brass pilgrims, and the characterful, bucolic wind band and percussion during the meeting with Dulcinea. Vogler naturally remained first amongst equals, from his entry onwards, and never more so than in the dark, Romantic solo of the Knight’s Vigil. That is, never more so until his noble performance during the hero’s death, sadly disrupted by a barrage of coughing. Runnicles’s shaping of Strauss’s vast structure seemed a little listless, or at least rhapsodic, during the Introduction, but afterwards there was little problem in that respect. Technicolor was the operative word for much of the performance, but there is nothing wrong with that on occasion.