Following his acclaimed performances of Messiaen and Bruckner last week, Principal Guest Conductor Donald Runnicles returned to the Sydney Symphony Orchestra for yet more works dealing with spirituality and the sublime, with the theme of death emerging more strongly here.

Brett Weymark, Donald Runnicles, Erin Wall and Samuel Dundas with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. Photo © Jay Patel

Opening with Strauss’ Tod und Verklärung, this was a thoughtful, deeply felt account to savour. From the hesitant opening lines, evoking a flickering consciousness, to the contrast and colour brought to the subject’s imaginings and remembrances, Runnicles brought an attention to drama and detail that never felt mannered or grandstanding. The violins acquitted themselves well in the long, high-lying phrases, the brass robust and rich but never overpowering. Rhythmically precise, the central crisis burst forth with startling power, the resolution imbued with a quiet ecstasy. Runnicles achieved an exquisite hypnotic quality in the work’s final moments, a solemn culmination carefully modulated but with real depth of feeling.

Canadian soprano Erin Wall then joined the orchestra for the same composer’s Four Last Songs, the last of which, Im Abendrot, cites the transfiguration theme from Tod und Verklärung. Wall’s bright, lyric soprano instrument has a sheen that’s just right for Strauss, and her clarity of diction and grasp of musical and dramatic detail made this a special performance. The wistful, rapturous nature of her singing was coupled with an admirable sense of proportion – Wall took care to avoid overwhelming the material with sheer sound, but never stinted on tonal beauty, a tricky balancing act.

Enviably long-breathed, the soprano brought a gleaming, burnished quality to Frühling and a sense of calm surrender to Beim Schlafengehen, the climaxes attaining a gentle radiance that served Strauss’ valedictory sentiments well. Particularly memorable was the sense of a gentle smile in the voice in the closing phrases of September, complemented by an eloquent horn solo. Im Abendrot saw Wall become a voice within the orchestra, the soprano singing daringly quietly, conveying a wonder and acceptance of death that was affecting. The SSO was a model of concentrated, sensitive support throughout, Runnicles laying down a lush carpet in support of his soloist but always taking care to draw out the songs’ ironic undercurrents whenever he could.

Erin Wall. Photo © Kristin Hoebermann

After interval, Runnicles offered up a marvellously shaped Fauré Requiem, drawing warm and sympathetic playing from the orchestra. His interpretation emphasises the work’s gentle qualities, and this proved an exceptionally sensitive rendition of the work. The violas shone on top of a burnished lower string section, and there were moments of outstanding horn playing.

The Sydney Philharmonia Choirs proved themselves precise of diction and pure of line, with entrances superbly blended as to be almost hidden. They coped admirably with the exposed melodies of the Sanctus and Agnus Dei, the solo violin in the former a moment of pure beauty, with Runnicles especially fine in his shaping of the latter. The brief soprano solo, Pie Jesu, was sung with an ethereal purity of tone by Wall, commendably free of affectation, while baritone Samuel Dundas brought class and poise to the Hostias and conviction to the Libera me. Other moments to treasure included the transparency the choir brought to the Amen which closes the Offertoire, as well as the typically moving In paradisum, which came close to bliss.

Donald Runnicles conducts Fauré’s Requiem has two more performances at the Sydney Opera House on October 25 and 26


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