BBC SSO/Runnicles

City Halls, Glasgow

Keith Bruce

four stars

FAR be it from me to take issue with the SSO’s Conductor Emeritus Donald Runnicles, especially as his annual visit to direct this orchestra is the only time we see the Scot on home turf these days, but Henri Dutilleux and Anton Bruckner seemed odd bed-fellows in this programme. While both were devout admirers of Richard Wagner, Dutilleux had little time for the imposing German’s acolytes, of which Bruckner was certainly one, as his Eighth Symphony makes abundantly clear.

Bruckner’s last completed symphony is also his longest and had the most troubled, extended, gestation. Some would say it also best exhibits his tendency to meander off-piste, as the various attempts to fix it during his lifetime and since might suggest. Runnicles chose the most commonly-accepted Nowak edition, placing the focus firmly on the epic third movement Adagio, which is either majestic or relentless, depending on your view. Certainly it is music that needs an advocate as passionate as Runnicles bringing his personality to bear on it, None of the movements is short and keeping them in shape and maintaining momentum is no small task. For all that the composer requires three harps — in the only one of his symphonies to use the instrument at all — most of the time the score is all about the fifty strings and large corps of horns and Wagner tubas. But it can be the detail in the winds that really matter, and that’s where the distinctive tone of the SSO’s first oboe Stella McCracken was crucial on Thursday evening.

The impression remained, however, that Dutilleux is the superior orchestrator. The concert began with his late work, Correspondances for soprano and orchestra, setting the texts of letters by Rilke, Mukherjee, Solzhenitsyn, and Van Gogh. Sung with luminous perfection and beautiful diction by Carolyn Sampson, even if she might have imposed her own personality on the material a little more, the French text is a of secondary importance to the vibrancy of the colours in the music. Detail like Ilona Suomalainen’s accordion cameo sat wonderfully alongside the ensemble recreation of the sound of a gong for the Rilke verses, its resonances played as harmonics on the string basses.