BBC Proms reviews

Prom 69: Pittsburgh SO/Honeck @ Royal Albert Hall, London

6 September 2011

Royal Albert Hall

Royal Albert Hall (Photo: David Levene/Royal Albert Hall)

Manfred Honeck conducted the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra like one possessed, in a two and a half hour Prom that was crammed with fantastic vigour. To warm things up we had the Prelude to Act I of Lohengrin. The sound conjured here had a mesmerising effect, with woodwind and brass billowing and frothing with effortless poise.

The magic sound continued with Wolfgang Rihms piece Gesungene Zeit written for the star violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter. As the work developed (and it seemed as if it never would) the music grew almost imperceptibly into a spiteful, clattering machine, only to end back in the rapturous gossamer of impossibly high and blissful shards of sound. There was an encore of some solo Bach always welcome, but theres often the feeling that offering an old favourite after some difficult contemporary music is something of an apology to the intolerant few who cant help coughing their guts up out of ignorance and boredom.

The Big Daddy of the night was Mahlers Fifth Symphony. At 73 minutes its not a trifle, and it has to be squared up to by the orchestra with fearless intent. The First Movement opened with fantastic energy, and Mahlers punctuation was demarcated very boldly, exaggerated raucousness juxtaposed with beautifully honeyed gloss, instead of the two elements being smoothly blended. Honeck kept up the wild and frenetic energy for the second movement but also introduced some of that mania into the more lyrical passages. This was where the Pittsburgh Symphony really showed their rhythmic muscle, the sharp focus of hugely complicated passages performed with virtuosity. How such detail sparked out so clearly among the fervent maelstrom was a mystery.

The third movement was chocolate-box Mahler, with his old-world waltzes, harking back to a more innocent era. The bare and dainty pizzicato section showed that this orchestra is really a giant chamber group, playing as they do with utter sensitivity to one another. A ravishing fourth movement gave way to a majestic fifth, full of kaleidoscopic textures and more mind-bending virtuosity. A sensational performance, with a well deserved standing ovation.

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