Classical: Proms: Rostrum star rises

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The Independent Culture
IT MAY be that some audience members at Wednesday Night's Prom expected Anton Webern's early tone poem Im Sommerwind to share a certain miniaturist austerity with the composer's mature serial works. What we in fact heard was a delicate variation on German late Romanticism, initially characteristic in its exquisite nuancing, then livening up for what sounded like a snippet from an Ealing comedy sound track.

An unexpected juxtaposition, though the conductor, Manfred Honeck, invested his performance with so much dynamic shading and phrasal activity that you could have listened a dozen times and still not exhausted the score's secrets.

Here, at last, is a young conductor truly to be reckoned with, a formidable rostrum presence who shapes his phrases with authority, draws the softest pianissimos possible (a clarinet solo near the beginning was so quiet it could as well have been off-stage), then shoulders huge climaxes with confidence. You could sense the extra intensity right from the first quiet bar, a sort of interpretative stealth - knowing precisely when and where to land the subtlest beat.

Honeck's innate sense of timing was equally in evidence for at least part of Prokofiev's Fifth Symphony. The first movement was at its most impressive for the animated development section, though elsewhere the orchestra's lack of tonal weight - especially among the strings - proved something of a stumbling block.

The cheeky second movement emerged as pert, articulate and witty (no string problems here), its quacking brass trio accelerating slowly for a riotous coda. In the Adagio, you could visibly follow Honeck's good intentions, but again, the orchestra's pooled sonority fell somewhere short of the ideal. The finale, on the other hand, found the entire band giving their all. If Honeck could achieve these results for one concert, imagine what he could do in a whole season. And, with so many conductorships currently up for grabs world-wide, he deserves to be given a break. And so do we.

Webern and Prokofiev flanked a performance of Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto, with Alfred Brendel as soloist; supple and contained for most of its course, though with a striking statement of the bigger and more harmonically adventurous of Beethoven's first-movement cadenzas.

After a typically well judged opening solo, Honeck drew salient woodwind lines from the main tutti, then kept fully on the alert throughout a notably perceptive first movement. Terraced dynamics were in evidence virtually everywhere and, this time, the BBC strings surpassed themselves. The second movement's stern opening was properly con moto, terse and emphatic, so that Brendel's humble response was all the more affecting.

Only the finale seemed a little short on sparkle, but that may have been due to a mis-match between Honeck's clear-cut dynamism and Brendel's relative restraint. Whatever the ultimate verdict, I have a suspicion that, in years to come, when connoisseurs swap notes about Brendel's performances of Beethoven concertos, a knowing handful will cite the collaboration with Honeck as something rather special.