Concert Review

Wagner, Mozart & Zemlinsky: BBC SO/Donald Runnicles, Anne Evans & Bo Slovhus, RFH 5 March 2000

For a conductor of Donald Runnicles' reputation it was extraordinary to think that this was his London conducting debut. It was an auspicious one.

The programme itself was perplexing - Wagner's Siegfried Idyll, Mozart's Symphony No 39 and Zemlinsky's Lyric Symphony. Odd concert programming is becoming so common at the Royal Festival Hall that one comes to expect it. Whether we should accept it, however, is an entirely different matter. It is time concerts reflected the major work programmed. In this case, Zemlinsky's marvellous symphony should have been set against something else. Why not Schoenberg's Pelleas and Melisande, the work against which it was originally placed at the Lyric Symphony's premiere? I will continue to highlight this growing problem until concert schedulers do something about it. Take note.

I can only assume the Wagner-Mozart-Zemlinsky triumvirate was here to highlight Runnicles' equal ability to conduct music from the eighteenth through to the twentieth centuries. Were the interpretations, and the playing, less than they were here, it would not have worked. But it developed into a fine concert.

I am surprised that someone of Runnicles' reputation should have taken so symphonic a view of Wagner's Siegfried Idyll. True, the scoring of Wagner's great birthday present (such imagination for a gift), is rather difficult to define. This performance was large-scale, using almost 50 players, against a norm of 30 or less. It was, however, very fine - string textures were luscious and the interplay between players was beautifully mapped out. More an interpretation for a great stately home than a Bavarian drawing room, it did try to convey the feeling of intimacy, but this was almost entirely down to Runnicles' skilled handling of dynamics.

A similar approach was evident in the Mozart. Runnicles' is a very intuitive conductor who understands what the rests between the notes mean. This Mozart was defined by a beautiful athleticism and poise. Speeds were fleet, the final movement of the symphony stunningly articulate. Runnicles allowed his players to let their instruments sing - woodwind particularly were beautifully choreographed. This interpretation, like the Wagner, displayed a keen sense of the individualism of the instrumentation - a sure sign that we were listening to a conductor trained predominantly in opera.

The Zemlinsky was a very fine performance of a work that can sometimes seem inflated. Bo Slovhus was replacing an indisposed Bryn Terfel (suffering from sciatica), but he tackled his part heroically. Anne Evans was somewhat remote, her wide-ranging soprano often colourful, but often strained. The orchestra was magnificent.

I hope that Donald Runnicles will take time out from San Francisco Opera to conduct in London more often. This was certainly an impressive debut, even if the programme was not ideal.

Marc Bridle

How many were at RFH, and how many of those had booked to hear Bryn Terfel? How many more would have stayed away if Zemlinsky had been coupled with Schoenberg? P.G.W. (Editor)

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