One of the great treats at the BBC Proms is the chance to hear orchestras and performers that rarely tour to this country. This was the first time the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra has appeared at this summer smörgåsbord and under energetic Music Director Louis Langrée it gave a strong showing. Audience appreciation was obvious which will surely have added to the morale boost from the announcement just a couple of days prior to the concert that orchestral management would meet its promise to return the band to its pre-recession ninety-player complement.

Louis Langrée and the Cincinnati Symphony © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Louis Langrée and the Cincinnati Symphony
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

The CSO has a venerable history. The sixth oldest orchestra was reformed into its present incarnation in 1893 under the auspices of a future First Lady, Helen Herron Taft, and gave notable American premières of works such as Bartók's Piano Concerto no. 1 and Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, benefiting across the years from associations with artists from Leopold Stokowski to Philip Glass. An interesting programme was an added bonus to their visit; an American first half of Bernstein’s symphonic suite from On the Waterfront and Copland’s Lincoln Portrait (of which the world première was given by the CSO back in 1942) balanced by Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no. 5 in E minor after the interval.

The American offerings saw the CSO at its strongest. Bernstein’s music for Elia Kazan’s film met with critical acclaim but failed to win an Oscar. The composer then refashioned it the following year into a 22-minute concert piece of superb thematic imagery. Langrée’s interpretation was spot on; an excellent opening solo from principal horn Elizabeth Freimuth – a real trooper who also made a strong contribution to the Tchaikovsky – was full and evocative with just the right level of cinematic dreaminess. There was clarity and cohesion within the different sections, with military precision between percussion and brass. Strings had a force and urgency in the more violent moments of the score and towards the end took on the fading tones of twilight and strong solos within the woodwind section were plangent. The taut delivery gave the whole performance an air of honed rigour, without sacrificing the musical ekphrasis of the plot behind the score.

Charles Dance, Louis Langrée and the Cincinnati Symphony © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Charles Dance, Louis Langrée and the Cincinnati Symphony
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Seeing Charles Dance stalk onto the stage – to many the manipulative Tywin Lannister from Game of Thrones, but immortalised for me as the (ultra-English) sinister Tulkinghorn in an adaptation of Bleak House – it was slightly disconcerting to hear an actor famed for villainy deliver quotes in a dubious Atlantic twang from one of America’s great heroes, Abraham Lincoln. Nonetheless, he had the nobility of delivery (not to say bearing) to bring meaning to lines from the Gettysburg Address though it was not wholly successful; the balance between voice and orchestra was sometimes lost, perhaps due to slight amplification issues. Langrée’s interpretation was strongest when evoking the pastoral hints of “Springfield Mountain”, the woodwind free and relaxed, but there was plenty of percussive flair and Langrée whipped the CSO up into tones of patriotic fervour with some magisterial brass playing.

The performance of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth was slightly underwhelming after the vigour and colour of the American works. Where the CSO seemed to capture the American flavour of Bernstein and Copland, admittedly having native advantage, it seemed less able to summon a Slavic spirit, and a certain energy in delivery was lacking. Among the highlights of the first movement was a splendid bassoon solo, well phrased and rich at the bottom of the instrument’s depths, and some plush string work with strong definition. Technically, there was little lacking although the woodwind did seem to get a little swamped in tutti moments. Throbbing, growling double-basses in the Andante cantabile contrasted with Freimuth’s second star moment of the evening in another strong horn solo. Indeed the CSO’s brass section proved to be a major highlight of the evening with its even intonation and broad rotund sound.

An encore from Bernstein’s Candide drew cheers from the audience, indicating that though this might not perhaps be the orchestra one might most wish to hear in Russian repetoire, a repeat visit with further ventures in their native music would be eagerly greeted.