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Runnicles with the NSO

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R. Strauss, Four Last Songs (inter alia), J. Eaglen, London Symphony Orchestra, D. Runnicles

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Elgar, Enigma Variations, London Symphony Orchestra, C. Davis
The National Symphony Orchestra is looking for a successor to their current music director, Christoph Eschenbach, who will step down at the end of next season. Figuring high on my list would have been Scottish conductor Donald Runnicles, whose recordings I have much admired and who had an excellent run at San Francisco Opera. His term as music director of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra ends next year, although he will apparently continue leading the Deutsche Oper Berlin for now. This week's NSO concerts offered the first chance to hear Runnicles live, and the experience far exceeded expectations.

The overture to Mozart's The Magic Flute featured sharp ideas, with the beat crisply marked by the baton in Runnicles' left hand. All those critical "knock" chords, the Masonic signature, were clearly defined and unified, with beautifully balanced tutti sound, and all sections paid close attention to delineating the repeated-note theme of the fast section, which bubbled with energy, if some occasional ensemble disagreements, all minor.

Russian soprano Olga Peretyatko, who had to cancel her local debut with the Washington Concert Opera one year ago, made an exemplary NSO debut in Richard Strauss's Four Last Songs, a piece we would gladly hear once a year. We have been following her via online streaming, and the reports of our European correspondent have been enthusiastic. Little surprise, then, that this is a voice worth hearing, firm and earthy at the middle and bottom, clear and unrestrained at the top. The latter quality made the end of the third song, Beim Schlafengehen, particularly beautiful, as the soul yearns to soar in the magic wreath of the night. Runnicles, who made a fine recording of these songs with Jane Eaglen some years ago, here had a voice more uniformly up to the task (and an improvement over the last singer to perform them here, Renée Fleming in 2010). The NSO responded with intense violin solos, not overly lachrymose, from concertmaster Nurit Bar-Josef and a luscious, poignant horn solo from outstanding principal player Abel Pereira at the end of the second song, September.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, The NSO starts its regular season with a promising debut (Washington Post, October 2)

Kate Molleson, BBCSSO/Runnicles review – warm, bold and incisive (The Guardian, September 30)
Without doing any kind of official count, I probably have issues with the NSO's string sections most often in my reviewing. What a delight to hear the strings sounding so good in Elgar's Serenade for String Orchestra, op. 20, the violas purring on the little energetic motif running through the first movement and the first violins weaving a single, limpid thread of sound. The second movement, taken not too slow and therefore more heartfelt than schmaltzy, was lush and tender, capped by a genial third movement, in no way agitated, which felt completely opposite from the approach often taken by Eschenbach.

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Edward Elgar and His World, ed. Byron Adams
(Bard Music Festival, 2007)
The same was true with the larger orchestra playing for the Enigma Variations, far surpassing the merely quirky rendition from the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra earlier this month. Runnicles carefully measured every crescendo, and the fast movements rollicked and thundered, grabbing the listener by the collar, brief and coordinated bursts of sonic wallop. The eighth variation, depicting the ladies of the Worcester Philharmonic Association, was graceful and passionate, leading into the famous ninth variation by a fragile sustained violin note, a moment marred by the crash of something at the back of the hall. Given the title "Nimrod," this graceful piece represents Elgar's beloved friend August Jaeger (German for hunter, thus the biblical hunter of the title), who encouraged Elgar in a moment of despondency, so the minor-mode theme, representing the loneliness of composition, is transformed into major. (Elgar used to sign letters with the first four notes of the mysterious theme, and now every time I hear the piece, I think of those first four notes sung to the words "Edward Elgar.") Runnicles brought out all sorts of details, like the delicate solos on viola and flute, the latter in its silvery low range, in the tenth variation.

This concert repeats tonight and tomorrow night, in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. Through a special promotion, $20 tickets on the orchestra level are available for both performances.

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