The biggest and most satisfying climaxes come when the build-up has been long and patient. Gustav Mahler knew it. So does Donald Runnicles. In his performance of Mahler’s Second Symphony with the BBCSSO on Sunday, Runnicles played the long game, holding his forces in check until the very last moment. At the very point where Mahler’s musical edifice reaches its hymnal apotheosis amid massive brass calls and triumphal clamour, Runnicles succeeded where so many other conductors fail: he created a sense of symphonic catharsis that makes you understand music – this music – as a journey rather than a succession of peaks.
It was a reminder that, no matter how often the nine symphonies have been played during the 2010-11 Mahler double anniversary, there is always room for a reading as clear-sighted and beneficent as this. You could “hear” Runnicles’s Wagnerian expertise in every paragraph, laying out the motivic patterns cogently, managing the transitions seamlessly, never exaggerating the rubato. This was the least hubristic Mahler I have heard for some time and also, despite some rough edges along the way, the most coherent.
The performance took time to settle. The opening funeral march was neither swashbuckling nor terrifying. The orchestra sounded overawed: you could tell from the tentative string ensemble that it does not have Mahler in its bones, in the way a top London orchestra does. It wasn’t until the recapitulation that things began to warm up. In the second and third movements, Runnicles took advantage of the excellent Usher Hall acoustic to play the quiet music as it is written but rarely heard – intimately. The Ländler were laced with subtle portamento and if the scherzo lacked sarcasm, the trumpets’ sentimental tune was handled with charm: the wind principals were consistently outstanding.
Karen Cargill handled “Urlicht” with due dignity and, after an underwhelming start, Meagan Miller came good in the soprano part. The Edinburgh Festival Chorus sang with exceptional refinement. Festivals often rely on imports for their showpieces. Edinburgh succeeded here with native forces.