City Halls, Glasgow
Over the last few seasons, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra has commissioned four composers to write short companion pieces for Brahms's four symphonies. They have produced fascinatingly varied responses, from Matthias Pintscher's Ex Nihilo, which has nothing much to do with Brahms, to this last of the bunch, Detlev Glanert's Brahms-Fantasie.
Subtitled Heliogravure for Orchestra, it is by far the most overtly Brahmsian, with sweeping hemiolas, thick-set Hungarian waltzes and counterpoint-driven passacaglias. A clangy opening cluster and gauzes of white noise make for explicitly contemporary decoration, but essentially this is more pastiche than homage, and the sporadic grandeur sounds like an effort to digest a whole symphony in just 10 minutes. Still, Glanert is expert at laying down atmosphere in an instant, and gives the orchestra some super sounds to play.
What followed was not Brahms's First Symphony but the Alto Rhapsody, which Donald Runnicles conducted as if it were the opera Brahms never wrote: spacious, broad, beautifully noble. Sarah Connolly was the ideal match with her intent lyricism and a low register so rich it seems to come from the centre of the earth. Next was the trim original score of Schumann's Fourth Symphony. This version can really fly, but here Runnicles fell between stools, making up for lost heft with weighty bowing and an oddly oafish charm.
When it finally came, Brahms's First was so highly charged, so persuasive in its sturdy grace and sumptuousness that it eclipsed the memory of its companion piece altogether. Runnicles's account doesn't dwell on subtleties – the fourth movement's tricky opening pizzicatos sagged, for example – but you'd be hard-put to not be bowled over by the mighty sound he gets from this orchestra.
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