The programme for Prom 36 followed the usual practice of sneaking in a contemporary piece between a famous concerto and an even more crowd-pleasing symphony, which makes it a rare pleasure to report that the UK premiere of Heliosis, by young Austrian composer Hannah Eisendle, was my highlight of the evening. With the picture in the programme of parched earth in Death Valley providing clear direction, Eisendle’s threatening brass and multiplicity of percussion effects took us on a short, vivid journey across the terrors of a desert landscape, weirdly glissando strings perhaps giving a clue to our disorientation.

Marin Alsop
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Eisendle’s high energy, cinematic music was an appropriate echo of the first piece in the concert, Bartók’s suite from The Miraculous Mandarin. This was the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra’s first time at the Proms and it was clear that their chief conductor Marin Alsop keeps a tight ship, with a conducting style that’s enthusiastic and very much no-nonsense. Every note was in place and the more frantic passages perfectly executed, from the perpetuum mobile opening to the thunderous close. Still, there were components of the experience missing; the orientalist passages weren’t particularly oriental and considering that the concert blurb promised “a masterpiece of grotesque eroticism”, there was little on show that was either grotesque or erotic. Frankly, I wanted more sleaze.

Benjamin Grosvenor and the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

The orchestra were joined by Benjamin Grosvenor for Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto no. 3 in C major. After a deliciously schmaltzy orchestral opening, you could sense Grosvenor getting into the groove as the piano part became heavier and then, after Alsop expertly managed a relaxation of the mood to languid, the pianist was happy to float in the ebb and flow of the music, interspersing it with sparkles of raindrops. Following an ironic gavotte which opens the second movement (Prokofiev may not quite match Shostakovich for unbridled sarcasm, but still, you’re never quite sure where you are with him), and a beautiful statement of the theme, Grosvenor produced a wonderful set of quiet variations and good interplay with individual orchestral instrumentalists. A gallop to the close of the second movement preceded a satisfying finale, after which we were treated to a generous and deliciously watery encore (it was a hot day, Grosvenor explained) in the shape of Ravel’s Jeux d’eau.

Benjamin Grosvenor, Marin Alsop and the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

The big symphony to close the programme was Dvořák’s Seventh. As in the Bartók, this was a thoroughly professional, accurate performance with not a hair out of place at any point. But we could have done with a bit less hairspray. I wanted greater presence in the woodwind interventions, greater freedom in bending rhythms and phrasing – in short, a bit more romanticism. Of the four movements, it was only in the third movement Scherzo that one sensed that the orchestra felt free to depart from the beaten track, giving the dance rhythms a bit of swing.

Finally, in the encores, the Vienna RSO were permitted to let their hair down, the most fun being with the first, Gerhard Winkler’s Pussy-(r)-polka, named, Alsop explained, after “one of my favourite girl bands”, Pussy Riot. With a mish-mash of traffic interrupting a traditional Viennese polka, much fun was had by all. More of that sense of freedom in the main programme, please.

***11