BBC Proms reviews

Prom 23: BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Runnicles @ Royal Albert Hall, London

3 August 2008

An empty auditorium at the Royal Albert Hall

An empty auditorium at the Royal Albert Hall (Photo: Christie Goodwin/Royal Albert Hall)

Prom 23 brought the juxtaposition of an early work by one great composer with a late work by another, performed by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Donald Runnicles, who becomes their Chief Conductor in September next year.

Beethoven completed his First Symphony in 1800 when he was 30. It is a strongly individual work and a superb curtain raiser for the eight remaining symphonies to come, although the orchestration bears the influences of Beethoven’s great symphonic predecessors, Haydn and Mozart. For this performance, Runnicles deployed a reduced-size orchestra with around 40 string players in addition to the numbers of woodwind, brass and timpani specified by Beethoven.

This was arguably too many for the first movement, masking some of the woodwind writing and blunting the effect of the conductor’s lively tempo. Fortunately, the middle movements came off splendidly, with some witty playing in the Andante and some deft dynamic terracing in the Menuetto. The Finale was also impressive, especially Runnicles’s daring approach to the teasing opening phrases of the movement.

Das Lied von der Erde was written in the summer of 1908, a year after Mahler suffered the death of his daughter and discovered the heart condition which was to cause his death in 1911. Unfortunately, problems of dynamics undermined much of this performance. The orchestral opening of the first song, Das Trinklied von Jammer der Erde, was arresting but overloud, leaving tenor Johan Botha sounding underpowered. Later in the piece and during the other tenor songs, Botha’s voice was heard to better advantage, but his interpretation rarely seemed to delve beneath the surface of the music.

Meanwhile, mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill attempted a highly intimate approach in the second song, Der Einsame im Herbst, but her singing was often simply too quiet, and the atmosphere was marred by audience coughing. Her pianissimos were even quieter in Der Abschied, often to the point of inaudibility, as were the pedal notes on double basses. On the other hand, the horns were often too loud, not helped by the fact there were five of them rather than the four marked in the score.

On the positive side, there was some excellent playing from the principal woodwinds, and the final moments of the work were sensitively handled. Overall, however, the performance failed to convey the longing and poignancy of this most haunting of masterpieces.

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