A concert of American music by the Minnesota Orchestra was among the more enticing Proms this year; the MO’s music director Osmo Vänskä brought his players over for a brief visit in a programme of Gershwin, Bernstein and Ives before stowing the instruments back in the hold and jetting off for a tour of South Africa. American music is of course towards the forefront of concerts in 2018 as orchestras celebrate the Bernstein centenary, and it was interesting to hear Ives and Gershwin in the context of this.

Osmo Vänskä © BBC | Chris Chistodoulou
Osmo Vänskä
© BBC | Chris Chistodoulou

The concert opened with Bernstein, the well-known overture to his operetta, Candide. The interpretation of this short piece was not wholly convincing; Vänskä’s great talent is his intense focus on detail, but it felt here that detail obscured the spirit of the piece. The playing felt overly segmented and lacked a fluidity needed to capture the work’s raucous nature. Technically though, there was much to admire with clean, rounded brass – no time needed to warm up there – and a rich gleam to the strings, a glossy cinematic colour neatly contrasted with the cooler tone of the flute solo.

A piano was already on stage – cue “heave-ho” as the instrument was opened – and Israeli pianist Inon Barnatan joined the orchestra on stage for Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F major. It’s a work that divides opinion, with some saying that it exposes Gershwin’s inexperience with large scale orchestral writing and is an inferior piece, and others arguing that it’s a magnificent blend of the European orchestral form and freer, lighter American music. In performance, it needs to thrill and it needs to sparkle, but this interpretation was badly earth-bound. Tempi, particularly in the first movement, were the main issue; music that should whirl was instead lethargic and studied. Barnatan, in keeping with the orchestral approach, was overly contemplative and suffered at times from being a little too subdued, always a risk in the Albert Hall, though one or two fluffs in his playing were noticeable.

There were some notable successes: Manny Laureano gave an outstanding trumpet solo, lugubrious and full of colour – as unique a voice as Barnatan’s piano in its own way. Vänskä’s almost clinical approach did offer the odd moment of clarity to the piece, particularly in the way he teased out contrast via the woodwind in the first movement. The piece started to catch fire at last in the third movement, both orchestra and pianist hinting at frenzied excess, but sadly too late to resuscitate the work.

Bernstein himself conducted the première of Ives’ Second Symphony decades after the composer finished the piece. It’s a work which, like the Gershwin above, is very much of two worlds: the old, warhorse symphony melding into American songs, most notably Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean which dates back to a time when the US had not yet fixed upon a definitive national anthem. Here, Vänskä’s attention to detail yielded dividends, the source melodies pulled out and highlighted, but he also gave a reading of the symphony that had breadth to it, capturing Ives’ bold sweeps and moments of grandeur. The brass again were on terrific form in the central movements, the horns in particular precise and well-phrased. String definition was strong and attractively coloured, the highlight being that superb cello solo, cherry-dark and thoughtful. One left with a desire to hear more Ives from the Minnesota Orchestra – the concert was recovered.