Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House
March 23, 2018

Lass, o Welt, o lass mich sein! So rang out Wolf’s Verborgenheit to a silent room. Devised as part of a tribute program to the originally scheduled artist, Anne Sofie von Otter and her late husband, tenor Stuart Skelton and Donald Runnicles offered the audience 20 minutes of valedictory songs by Wolf, Strauss and Lizst.

Donald Runnicles. Photo © Robert Catto

Throughout the recital, Skelton brought a technical assurance, linguistic authority and fine dynamic control to proceedings. Finely shaded, the opening Wolf selection was appropriately introspective, with careful attention given to the climax on ‘Wonniglich’ (‘blissfully’) and the retreat of ‘in meiner Brust’ (‘in meiner brust’). Though Skelton’s delivery felt more in the operatic mode than perhaps in the lieder, his unfailing connection to the nuances of each text allayed any misgivings an audience member may have. Meanwhile, Runnicles offered consummate support, his sustained legato playing understated but consistently affecting.

Strauss’ Ruhe, meine Seele came alive with Skelton’s precise attacks and his fine lower register, complemented by Runnicles’ careful weighing of the song’s dark harmonies. A balance between the piece’s cautious calm and the imploring sentiment of ‘Ruhe, ruhe, Meine Seele’ (‘rest, rest, my soul’) was admirably brought off by both, while the concluding ‘Und vergiss, Was dich bedroht!’ (‘and forget what is threatening you’) was voiced with a pale, transient beauty.

Skelton’s vocal heft and crisp delivery served him well in Allerseelen, with Runnicles providing a deft touch. Skelton bore the chromatic shifts of the number particularly well, each note sung securely through its centre. Imbuing it with a sense of suppressed emotion, Skelton refused to overplay its weighty pathos, effecting instead a more touching rumination on grief and remembrance. The tenor found a quiet purity that spoke volumes.

One of the undoubted highlights of the evening was Liszt’s Wanderers Nachtlied. Skelton’s sure sense of line, allied with the lunar beauty of Runnicles’ playing, established an atmosphere of deep quiet. The tenor’s mezzo voce treatment of this selection was finely judged and intensely moving, with the enveloping calm of the final bars magically rendered by Runnicles. The audience hardly breathed.

In the recital’s closing selection, the cumulative effect of Skelton and Runnicles’ efforts made itself felt. An artist needn’t strive too much to make Morgen effective, and here the restraint of both was commendable. A mature reading, Strauss’ spare, declamatory lines were delivered almost conversationally, flecked with longing rather than awash with it. The pair evoked a sense of repose that made for a deeply felt, fitting tribute to their absent colleague.

After interval, Runnicles returned to conduct Deryck Cooke’s performing version of Mahler’s incomplete Tenth. An obvious proponent of the work, he brought a finely-honed awareness of its mercurial shifts in mood and timbre, with the Orchestra maintaining a commendable balance between emotional involvement and technical refinement.

Rather than envisioning the opening Adagio as one long breath (as can often be the case), Runnicles coaxed a fervidity from his players that felt thrillingly adjacent to impetuosity. He’s a conductor that appears to always achieve the sonorities he’s after – the violas had a slow building bloom that teetered on the edge of rapture, while the woodwinds took full advantage of Mahler’s chamber-like textures. The sustained line that Runnicles attained avoids an asceticism that can mar even the most accomplished accounts, effecting a searching quality that balances out some of the grittier playing – the cellos dug into their strings with impressive verve. Weaved throughout the first movement was an understated grieving quality, momentarily shattered by the searing dissonant cluster chords toward the end – the brass possessed an organ-like colour that unsettled.

An ideal tempo for the second movement Scherzo allowed the jagged angularity of Mahler’s writing its full effect. Like a consummate ringmaster, Runnicles encouraged his musicians to playing of great expression – the dance-like measures had a degree of irony that persisted without feeling overplayed. As a result, a sense of laughing gaiety was consistently undercut by the frantic metrical shifts, generating a nervous energy that excited and disturbed in equal measure. The coherence of the strings was particularly impressive given their febrile attacks, and the virtuoso race to the finish very impressive indeed.

The tiny, central Purgatorio carried forward the previous movement’s sense of ambiguity, with its ostensible atmosphere of calm, even serenity, feeling threatened at every turn. With no lack of exquisite detail, its hummable whimsy possessed a sinister edge.

In the second Scherzo, Runnicles again showed his innate feel for the shifting moods of the piece. The inherent conflict of this fourth movement was undeniably given its due: a push-pull volatility was allied to a judicious highlighting of orchestral colour. While the Trio section was particularly winning, the approach of the coda with its thunderous drum strokes was a highlight. Too often an exercise in percussion, here it was appropriately powerful and unsettling, bringing the audience to a simply astonishing Finale.

With a superb flute solo that seemed to sing more than merely play, the Orchestra offered up rapt pianissimi in the final movement. Great attention was lavished by Runnicles on the strings’ filigree-fine response, avoiding preciousness but achieving a level of profundity that moved. Further, the balance between the brass and bass drum was wonderfully atmospheric, with the reintroduction of the earlier dissonances given an appropriate level of intensity. Though a sense of serenity set in at symphony’s end, Runnicles underlined its provisionality, making it all the more wrenching. The audience was silent, then burst into applause.