Donald Runnicles and Frank Peter Zimmermann offer a touch of class in Sibelius and Elgar.

The Scottish conductor Donald Runnicles was in town recently for a couple of concerts with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. Smart programming. Runnicles is undoubtedly one of the most admired and sought after maestros of his generation, so an opportunity to hear him in a trifecta of ‘big works’ (his fach, so to speak) was something of a must. On the bill were two Brits and a Finn, plus a German soloist, Frank Peter Zimmermann – a violinist with an enviable reputation to match Runnicles himself.

Rejected by the commissioning Japanese for being too ‘Christian’, the first item on the agenda is still a relative rarity in the concert hall. Benjamin Britten really knew how to grab the attention with the opening of his Sinfonia da Requiem – massive timpani and bass drum strokes and fortissimo plucked bases lead into a sombre, lamenting movement replete with doleful sax and soughing strings. It’s bleak, but catches and holds an audience as it plods towards its inexorable climax.

Runnicles, looking like a cross between an Old Testament prophet, Billy Connolly and Col. Saunders, controlled it all expertly, the SSO exhibiting a wide range of tone in colourful music that veered from Mahler to Berg, and yet was always distinctly Britten. The grisly Dies Irae, a cross between a wild ride for a cohort of skeletons and a diabolical highland fling, was taken for a thrilling, bravura spin – brass on first rate form here – before the faux-naïf finale – a lullaby with all the sweetness of Kurt Weill on Broadway – emerged anthemic to fill the hall with hope.

Sibelius’s violin concerto is one of the truly great concerti of the 20th century and, despite its lack of obvious Tckaikovskian fireworks, it’s a bloody hard play for any soloist. Fortunately Frank Peter Zimmermann was entirely equal to the task, able to switch from icy silver to a burnished golden tone with apparent ease. His shaping of the diversities of Sibelius’s solo part always had a terrific rightness about it, veering from graceful soliloquies to romantic flights of fancy over full orchestra. Runnicles and the SSO were ideal partners here, never swamping the soloist, yet keeping plenty in reserve for their own walloping climaxes.

Beautifully balanced woodwind and brass built a warm bed for Zimmermann to lay his solo line upon in the wrapt andante second movement. One of this soloist’s superpowers, it would appear, is to be both concentrated and impassioned at the same time. Nowhere was this more in evidence than in the romantic flow of Sibelius’s broadly flowing river. When the time came for it to spill into what Donald Tovey once described as “the polonaise for polar bears” finale, the sense of release was palpable. Spirits lifted all around as Frank Peter Zimmermann engaged in what, at his and Runnicles’ breakneck pace, was akin to Tchaikovskian fireworks after all! The flawless Prelude from Bach’s Third Partita was our reward, tossed off with great charm and elegance.

You can waste a great deal of time and energy trying to solve the puzzle of Elgar’s Enigma Variations – trust me, I have – but putting all that aside, in the right hands what a superb piece of music it is! And Donald Runnicles’ hands were ideal. His control of the minutiae of phrase shapes and dynamics made for some stylish mood painting, while his control of the rise and fall of the emotional temperature set hearts aflutter on more than one occasion.

With Runnicles’ attention to detail, Alice Elgar swelled and blossomed, Richard Baxter Townshend teetered on his tricycle and Richard Penrose Arnold’s witty remarks flew light as swallows in summer. ‘Troyte’ has surely seldom seemed so rumbustious while Isabel Fitton’s little oboe trills floated heavenwards like a good soufflé.

Of course everyone is waiting for Nimrod, and here the conducting was sublime, Runnicles making the music sound inevitably like Elgar’s reply to the Prelude from Wagner’s Tristan – superb control of line, balance and build with the SSO strings radiant.

Following on from that, Dorabella danced on tiptoe and Dr Sinclair and bulldog Dan gave everyone a fright and a good soaking to boot! Elgar’s friend Basil G. Nevison nearly matched Nimrod for profundity, a lovely bronzed cello section here. Lady Mary’s sea voyage was full of ominous touches before the composer’s self-portrait showed himself to be a veritable Pomp and Circumstance March all of his own.

A rather special concert, then, Donald Runnicles bringing up all three works fresh and new sounding. Glorious playing, stellar conducting – and what superb music.

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