Proms 2011: Manfred Honeck, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and Hélène Grimaud

Colourful Tchaikovsky from the Pittsburgh Symphony but Grimaud was the star attraction at this Prom

There was a nice overture to last night’s concert – and one that was new to me. Walter Braunfels’s Fantastic Appearances of a Theme of Hector Berlioz, Op. 25 (1914-17), is a set of variations for large orchestra based upon ‘Song of the Flea’ from Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust.

Completed during the First World War, and punctuated by episodes of dark and grotesque humour, it introduces Berlioz’s theme in 12 different guises; the Pittsburg Symphony Orchestra chose just two of those variations, framed by an introduction and a contrapuntal finale. An admirer of Berlioz (you could hear it in the unusual spaces of his orchestration) and friend of Liszt and Clara Schuman, the Frankfurt-born Braunfels wrote three such sets of orchestral variations – and this made me want to seek not only more of this one, but the others, too.

But then, the playing of the Pittsburg Symphony Orchestra has that effect. Their performance of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony (1888) was full of colour. From the opening low clarinets and strings, Manfred Honeck showed the deep level of understanding he has formed with this orchestra since he took up the post of music director there in 2008. Wonderful depth of sound, and gauging of the music’s topography – particularly in the string harmonies of the second, mournful movement.

But without question the star of the show last night was French pianist Hélène Grimaud who played an astonishing Beethoven Fourth Piano Concerto. There was a real sense of improvisatory freedom about her playing: she has a way of airing the spaces between the notes so as to give them more emphasis when they arrive, but without ever labouring their delivery. The Adagio found new depths – all in all, a joy to hear.

Prom 68
Braunfels: Fantastic Appearances of a Theme of Hector Berlioz
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 4
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 5
Hélène Grimaud (pno). Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra/Manfred Honeck

Nick Shave writes for The Guardian and is contributing editor of BBC Music Magazine. A regular reviewer and blogger of the Proms, he can usually be found at the Royal Albert Hall with only seconds to spare, breaking into an ungainly powerwalk somewhere between the ticket collection desk and the stalls