The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra returned to the BBC Proms for the first time since 2011, when they were also joined by Anne-Sophie Mutter on violin, performing Wolfgang Rihm. This time the contemporary music was left to the orchestra, who began with John Adams’ Lollapalooza, with Mutter joining them for Dvořák’s Violin Concerto in A minor. The meat of this concert was from the same composer as 2011, only this time it was Mahler’s First instead of Fifth Symphony that fleshed the night out.

Manfred Honeck, Anne-Sophie Mutter and the Pittsburgh Symphony © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Manfred Honeck, Anne-Sophie Mutter and the Pittsburgh Symphony
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

The choice of Lollapalooza as both showcasing US repertoire and a nod towards a British conductor (Adams composed the work as a 40th birthday present to Simon Rattle) was understandable for a visiting US orchestra, but perhaps misplaced. The work’s rhythmic complexity demands a steady but agile baton to keep all the parts moving. Manfred Honeck’s conducting was sufficiently metronomic, but often too weighty leading to some clumsiness in the sound. The brass, however, revelled in the delightful brashness of the piece, while quieter, pared-back moments provided tantalising glimpses of the piece’s full potential.

Such was also the case with Dvořák’s Violin Concerto, where Anne-Sophie Mutter’s lyrical and technical brilliance was not disciplined enough for Honeck and the orchestra to follow her. There were flashes of beauty from the orchestra, particularly during their moments in the sun in the Adagio and Honeck’s own tempi choices were very well-judged, especially in the opening movement which had a peculiarly but pleasing Mozartean feel to it. Sadly, none of these could make up for the lack of ensemble, and the end of the finale laboured to a close that came as a relief. Mutter returned for an encore, the Gigue from Bach’s Partita in D minor, that provided the space for her flexibility in interpretation.

Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

And then, something completely different. Honeck began his tenure at the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in 2008 with Mahler’s Symphony no. 1 in D major, and his love and communication of that love for all things Viennese shows no sign of abating. He had included an extra note in the programme to explain his interpretative choices, though he needn’t have – from the very first note, it was clear that something very special was happening. Music that was so familiar felt fresh and surprising; this was most apparent in the second movement, where heavy articulation, portamento and carefully applied rubato were transformative – I have never heard the Ländler sound more rustic or energetic. The opening of the first and third movements were exquisite, building up from nothing into a beautifully expansive sound. The quotation from Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen in the third movement was utterly heartfelt and it faded out magically, while the final movement took us through chaos, violence and anger to triumphant redemption. After such a perfect, complete performance, not one but two encores did feel a little indulgent, though we stayed in the Viennese tradition with Die Libelle by Josef Strauss and the Furioso Polka from Johann Strauss II. As I left the Royal Albert Hall I preferred to cast my mind back to the exhilarating Mahler, and forget all else.