Glorious string sound from the Pittsburgh Orchestra in the big tunes of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 was a pleasant surprise after the interval in tonight's Prom. This followed the Pittsburgh Orchestra's rather stiff accompaniment to Hélène Grimaud’s mawkishly tragic interpretation of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 which echoed her renowned performance at the Prom of 11th September 2001, when the Proms played on, as in World War II,

An unusually large number of people did not return after the interval. They missed a treat: the stiff interpretation of Beethoven was followed by a luscious flowing and virtuosic performance of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5. Clearly a favourite with the players and the conductor, and presumably their home audience, they played it with heart and soul. The Prom audience knows a great performance and responded with typical attention during the performance and typical rowdy warmth at the conclusion. No matter a part of the audience was “caught out” by the pause before the final coda, no-one laughed out loud and they soon experienced acute embarrassment. As a result there was an extended pause at the end of the final chord! The rowdy applause which followed caused the orchestra to respond with two encores: the lilting overture from Act 2 of Carmen and an arrangement of a Sabre Dance, but not the Khachaturian one.

Hélène Grimaud had received a warm welcome but unusually for a pianist at an orchestral prom, she didn’t offer an encore. Perhaps she felt it inappropriate following her interpretation of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 that seemed inspired by 9/11 and so emphasised all the dark aspects of the music whilst suppressing Beethoven’s balancing lightness - the key of the Beethoven’s 4th Piano Concerto is G major not G minor, for goodness sake! She was clearly totally immersed in her performance and played the runs and arpeggios evenly and clearly but to me they seemed without warmth, almost like practice scales. Other performers reveal much more meaning by picking the underlying melody out from the ornamentation.
Despite Hélène Grimaud’s charisma and reputation, the Prom audience did not go wild. It seemed that Manfred Honeck conducted from the score, unusual for a major piece by Beethoven;  despite his very detailed direction to the orchestra there were still occasional ensemble problems.

Braunfels' Fantastic Appearances of a Theme of Hector Berlioz was a fine curtain-raiser with some nice melodic development facing strident passages. Unfortunately the result was worthy but didn't electrify.

Overall, it is great to see a major American orchestra back at the Proms and in such fine voice. The Pittsburgh SO's highly drilled style of performance is quite different from the band of soloists style becoming fashionable in Europe. I have no particular preference: both produce great music,


Prom 68: Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra & Hélène Grimaud
Manfred Honeck conductor
Monday 5 September
Royal Albert Hall

Braunfels: Fantastic Appearances of a Theme of Hector Berlioz
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 5 in E minor