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BBC SSO/Donald Runnicles, Usher Hall, Edinburgh

BBC SSO/Donald Runnicles, Usher Hall, Edinburgh

BBC SSO/Donald Runnicles, Usher Hall, Edinburgh
August 11
01:03 2015

The Edinburgh International Festival was launched with heroic performances of Brahms and Strauss

©John Wood

Donald Runnicles conducts the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. Photo: John Wood

Following Friday night’s open-air spectacular Harmonium, animations projected on the Usher Hall to John Adams’s music, of which even non-fans of the American composer were moved to concede “You had to be there” (words some music lovers would sooner use of the sinking of the Titanic), the Edinburgh Festival opened on Saturday officially, and more sedately, with Strauss and Brahms. It was an occasion for pride on various counts: a magnificent orchestra, the BBC SSO whose name reflects both the BBC, whom God preserve, and topical Scottishness; and the conducting of Donald Runnicles, Scotland’s most globally successful musical export, in the solid, German repertoire which is his chief glory.

This year also marks the 50th anniversary of the Edinburgh Festival Chorus, who opened the 1965 festival with Mahler’s Eighth. Resisting grandiose gestures, on Saturday they simply devoted the first half to Brahms: intimacy and introspection — a greater challenge than merely making loud noise — sandwiching a selection of the playful Liebeslieder. The latter’s original settings (piano duet, four voices) are more successful than the arrangement for chorus and orchestra. The result is too often daintily elephantine: images of the tutu-clad hippos in Disney’s Fantasia lurk disconcertingly. The chorus were happiest with the folksy flavour of the girl locked up on the Danube shore (how they would relish the sinister fairy-tale world of Mahler’s Klagende Lied). They opened with Parzen, “Song of the Fates”, a setting of Goethe’s brooding rumination on the house of Atreus, in which finely judged dynamic variations injected almost operatic drama. They ended with the Schicksalslied, the poet Hölderlin’s “Song of Destiny”, with its balance of mortal and ethereal, the fading of life, beautifully rendered. Chorus master: Christopher Bell.

The second half consisted of Strauss’s Heldenleben — “A Hero’s Life”; only a bombastic Bavarian could compose an autobiography in his early thirties with such a title. The sleek, silken skirl of Straussian strings caught the ear at once: worth noting since this is a work in which wind instruments can steal the orchestra’s thunder. The BBC SSO is especially strong in this department, as their Mahler in last week’s BBC Prom showed. The woodwind writing that represents the critics here had the tangy chatter of rodents rather than the birdlike twittering of some interpretations. A similar toughness was glimpsed in Laura Samuel’s violin solo as the hero’s companion, a portrait of Frau Strauss, mellifluous and steadfast but with a hint of the bossiness which Strauss would give her in a later, less flattering portrait, the opera Intermezzo. Horns, trumpets and trombones were in aptly blazing form. The festival was heroically launched.

The Edinburgh International Festival runs to August 31,

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