Grimaud/Pittsburgh SO/Honeck, Royal Albert Hall

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The Independent Culture

Until Prom 68, I had neither heard of Walter Braunfels (1882-1954), nor heard a note of his music, and it’s a fair bet that most of the audience hadn’t either.

His career was both impressive and ill-starred. A noted pianist and composer, he was wounded in the First World War, converted to Catholicism, refused to compose for the Nazis, and was forced out of public life; the demise of Hitler let him pick up where he has left off as a performer, but his music – which had not kept pace with fashionable atonality – languished in oblivion.

So it was a nice gesture to schedule his 47-minute ‘Fantastic Appearances of a Theme of Hector Berlioz’ in a Prom. Well, that was what the Proms brochure promised – but, in the event, what we got was a mere 14 minutes of this genial, mercurial work. As the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra played it under the direction of Manfred Honeck, this was just enough to whet our appetite for the whole thing, which will now probably never get a Proms airing. Why was it cut down to a rump? Did the BBC suddenly lose faith in it? Or did they just want to bunk off early?

Then came Helene Grimaud as soloist in Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto. The gently repeated chords of her entry had sinew, but they ended in a sigh which was softly taken up by the answering strings; when she came back in, after the long orchestral exposition, it was with compelling authority. Her passage-work was scintillating, and she found a host of small ways to say something new through this familiar masterpiece. This was the pianist, one remembered, who had recently has a bust-up with Claudio Abbado over which cadenza to choose for a Mozart concerto – he wanted her to play one, but she was determined to play another. In the magical slow movement here, where the piano must use sweet reason to gradually tame the orchestra, she exercised total dominion - if at the expense, at times, of some poetry.

Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony had seemed a nice, solid way to round things off, but it allowed this fine orchestra to show what feats its brass could achieve, with a principal horn whose pianissimo control is simply miraculous.

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