City Halls, Glasgow

Rosie Davies

Four stars

What a sensible move, to invite SSO Conductor Emeritus Donald Runnicles to take on Mahler’s almost unbearably personal song-symphony, Das Lied von der Erde.

Written in the wake of personal tragedy and illness, it is a very real contemplation of life and death, beauty and sorrow, and the challenge of interpreting its emotional weight is equally stark. The programme played with ideas of Eastern and Western influence, with Mahler’s setting of 8th-century Chinese poems preceded by two works from Japanese composer Takemitsu, who repeatedly looked west for inspiration. Runnicles, with his sturdy operatic bent, his sweeping Romantic strokes, confidently did the same, mostly eschewing the sparse, mindful sensitivities of Eastern philosophy for those of the West in a performance favouring dramatic grandeur and operatic narrative drive.

Takemitsu was all disorientating sweeps and sways, excitingly accentuated, and the vivid characters of Mahler’s six songs were given centre stage through the two soloists, mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor and tenor Paul Groves, both demonstrating neat control and polish as well as a welcome amicability. O’Connor had a particularly personable presence, balancing vibrato-rich sophistication with a theatrical yet down-to-earth confidence. In the noteworthy final movement, her exposed lines melted amongst the lonely instrumental voices (solos of equally well-judged poise, especially the woodwind).

The lingering sentiment was of life’s bittersweet beauty, rather than its desolation – moving, and no doubt welcoming for those looking to leave with dry eyes.