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It used to be necessary for young British conductors to translate their names into Russian, or make their careers abroad. Nowadays, you can make progress with a name like Colin Davis or Simon Rattle; yet Donald Runnicles, one of our most outstanding younger figures, is a much bigger name in America and Europe than here. Music director of the San Francisco Opera and conducting at Bayreuth, he has few bastions left to conquer. Yet when he returns to his native Britain you get the reaction: Donald who?

His San Francisco Ring made a great international stir, and last week in the Usher Hall you could see why. A concert performance of two of the biggest scenes from Wagner's opera cycle - the closing sequence of Siegfried and the last act of Gotterdammerung - revealed a propulsive, vital personality, impatient of small matters, following the time and tide of these huge paragraphs.

The composer preferred to hide his orchestra under the stage; but since they were unavoidably on show in the Usher Hall, Runnicles elected to engage the best singers and just let them cope with the volume of sound. The Royal Scottish National Orchestra were transformed into natives of Valhalla; the Funeral March was slow, heavyweight, cumulative, a massive achievement.

As for the superb cast: you could not really go wrong with Jane Eaglen as Brunnhilde, for this artist manages to combine a totally commanding voice with a warmth, even vulnerability, which is unusual in this part. In a sense, she never becomes "Wagnerian", and this is what makes her performance so touching; when she calls herself ein trauriges Weib, a sorrowful woman, you feel the softness of Valkyrie-become-woman. Heinz Kruse was a telling Siegfried, and John Tranter took Hagen as a character part, a roaring and sneering villain without any redeeming features.

The orchestra were less at ease in a concert of Mahler and Bruckner. The two soloists in Mahler's many-layered Des Knaben Wunderhorn songs chose the popular approach; Boje Skovhus was a drunken bumpkin or a soldier- victim, howling from the depths of bitterness, while Anne Sofie von Otter was a naive girl, at her best in tender rapture; "O Roschen rot" was sumptuous, softly declaimed in a sweet and rich tone that had a quite unique, slightly tart edge to it, accompanied by a demure oboe.

However, the strings were stiff in the subtle lilt of "Rheinlegendchen" and the wind ensemble could not master the delicate open work of this score. The same problems were soon evident in Bruckner's Fourth Symphony. Again, Runnicles gave inspiring direction, and again there were heart- catching moments - notably a celestial opening horn solo - but the strings sounded niggling, the long viola melodies in the slow movement suggesting pieces of cold meat. The long finale, a symphony in itself, seemed to fall from a genial march into an episode of pastoral ease and weightless dance without any sense of the musical future. There was plenty of noise, but little of that veiled strength and Alpine grandeur which are Bruckner's essential spirit.