Financial constraints mean the BBC Proms reached the final week of this season without a US orchestra being heard. That changed in the last few days and somehow it was fitting that the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra should lead the way, blasting out enough noise to make up for all the orchestras that have stayed at home.
Since 2008, Pittsburgh has had Austrian conductor Manfred Honeck as its music director, but that has not meant any softening of its brash American style. Far from it: Honeck positively seemed to encourage his players to go for broke, like an aircraft carrier sailing into the Albert Hall with all its guns blazing.
They opened the first of their two Proms on Monday with excerpts from Braunfels’s Fantastic Appearances of a Theme of Hector Berlioz – a real rarity, witty, full of virtuoso energy, and in this performance bright and brassy. Then Hélène Grimaud was the soloist in a weighty, rather unsympathetic performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.4 that pitted defiant piano heroism against orchestral muscle. Growling lower strings at the start of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No.5 were a reminder that it is not only the Pittsburgh brass who are formidable in their power. The whole performance was like four rounds in a boxing ring, as the players blazed and pounded their way through the music with unremitting virtuoso force, leaving Tchaikovsky to stagger away dazed at the end. Easy to admire, impossible to love.
There could hardly have been a greater contrast than the previous night’s performance of Beethoven’s Missa solemnis. Conductor Colin Davis could not be in less of a hurry to show off these days. He gives the music all the time it needs and then some more, allowing space for sonorities to blend and the mind to ponder on the philosophical radiance of one of Beethoven’s most challenging works. Where the Pittsburgh performance went hell for leather after drive and brilliance, this one was so laid back that the momentum drifted and the ensemble as a whole – a very decent solo quartet and the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, bolstered by the London Philharmonic Choir – passed through some shaky passages. What we really needed was a middle way that neither Prom successfully found.