Another stage in the elusiveness of Donald Runnicles reached its peak on Sunday when he was indisposed and had to be replaced as the BBC Symphony's guest conductor. So the Scot more fêted internationally than in Britain kept his reputation intact while the Viennese Walter Weller took over. Weller too is something of a mystery guest. Having headed three British orchestras in the past quarter-century, including the Royal Philharmonic, he is most active now in Spain and Germany and this was a good chance for London to catch up. London apparently didn't agree – I shouldn't have complained about the way BBC Knowledge television crews got in the way at the orchestra's last concert, a full house is better any day than this dismal turn-out.
And for Anton Bruckner's Ninth Symphony, too. What the masses missed was music-making of such warm-toned, patient concentration that a highly charged atmosphere developed anyway. This orchestra used to give cult Bruckner performances with the veteran conductor Gunter Wand, who brought out the music's suppressed energy and harmonic sophistication, but Weller's way was the opposite. He is a former leader of the Vienna Philharmonic, and his approach rested on the traditional virtues of carefully nourished and balanced string and brass tone, simplicity and frankness of expression, and steady but flexible pacing.
Establishing a slow pulse and a spacious demeanour at the outset, Weller let the music emerge from the expressive background of Schubert, particularly the Schubert of the "Unfinished" Symphony and the late piano sonatas. The timeless cadences, the gradual accumulation of shapely musical paragraphs into sustained chapters, were all implicit in the edge-of-sound beginning. Both of the outer movements reached momentous peaks of power at or near the end.
What seemed like an underplaying of some events on the way turned out to be stages in a single-build-up. There's always a risk with such a long-drawn attitude that the music will seem to meander, as this one did for a few minutes midway through the opening movement, but the musicianly directness of the performance saw it through. It helped too that the central Scherzo went big on a fast, stamping beat and rhythmic energy, featuring light and affectionate woodwind detail, as its vigour gave perspective to the prevailing steadiness.
At the start of the concert, the soprano Susan Chilcott was soloist in the Seven Early Songs by Alban Berg. Did the crowds stay away because the first half was going to be shorter than the interval? – mean programming even with Bruckner to follow. Surely it wasn't that four-letter word Berg.
These are luscious, late-Romantic settings of nocturnal poetry, like Mahler with added honey and barely a hint of the formalist tendencies that overtook the composer later in life. In fact the writing's focus on inner sexual emotion is almost cosy, and only the first song hints at an uneasy world out there in the dark.
Here the orchestral playing picked up on the rather more plentiful hints in the music, tipping the balance towards the deeper tonal shades, though the prevailing fluent warmth was entirely suitable and offset Chilcott's bright tone and finely shaped lines.
Some of the bigger sounds covered the singer, not for the first time in this hall recently – is there a difference in the altered acoustic between what you hear on the podium and in the auditorium?Reuse content