The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra last visited the BBC Proms in 2006 under the baton of Leonard Slatkin. This time they were accompanied by Manfred Honeck, who took over the role of Music Director at the start of the 2008/09 season.
The opening work in this concert was advertised as being the Fantastic Appearances of a Theme of Hector Berlioz by Walter Braunfels, a gifted German composer whose music fell out of favour during the Third Reich. Braunfels music is now gradually being rediscovered, and the prospect of hearing this late romantic piece, completed in 1917, was a major draw. However, the works 45 minute duration was unexpectedly reduced on the night to a series of excerpts lasting just 14 minutes. Honecks interpretation was ardent and swaggering, but the fact that so little of the score was performed was a major disappointment.
Following this, Hlne Grimaud gave a performance of Beethovens Piano Concerto No 4 in G major. This was a distinctive interpretation, spontaneous and energetic in the outer movements, measured and tentative in the Andante. The orchestral accompaniment was less impressive, partly as a result of Honecks decision to deploy the same full sized string section that had been heard in the Braunfels piece, including no less than eight double basses. Although woodwind solos were allowed to shine through the texture, the overall result lacked clarity and incisiveness.
The concert concluded with a performance of Tchaikovskys Fifth Symphony that seemed less an illumination of the composers music than a showcase for the conductor and orchestra. Extremes of volume and tempi not marked in the score were features of this interpretation, including a leaden opening for the Andante and a frenetic close for the finale. In addition, Honeck chose to use double the number of trumpets requested by Tchaikovsky, bringing an uncomfortable harshness to climaxes and an unattractive buzz of reverberation from the opposite side of the hall. For all the skill of the orchestral response to Honecks direction, the performance failed to communicate genuine passion or excitement.
So keen were the audience to applaud that one person even started several minutes before the symphony finished. Honeck and the orchestra provided two encores, the entracte to Act III of Carmen and the Galop from Khachaturians Masquerade Suite.