“I’ve missed you,” Marin Alsop exclaimed to the Proms audience – and for the last three summers the Proms has missed her. She’s a natural here, playing off the curious informal grandeur the festival brings to this space each summer. Her orchestra, though, were Proms first-timers. Alsop took over as the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra’s music director in 2019, and their programme showcased a taut ensemble responsive to their conductor.
The frenetic opening of the suite from Bartók’s sleazy ballet The Miraculous Mandarin exemplified this, violins coursing, wind and brass snappy. Alsop didn’t overplay the music’s grotesqueries but instead concentrated on its rhythmic drive – something that also infused Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No 3, in which the soloist Benjamin Grosvenor assertively led the orchestra through the music’s carefree swagger. Or at least he seemed to: in reality this is a piece that demands tight teamwork if the pianist is going to sound like a star, and that’s what it got here, with Alsop maintaining a tick-tocking momentum throughout. Grosvenor’s encore, Ravel’s Jeux d’eau, was quite a contrast, but its liquid textures were underpinned by the same forensic precision of touch.
The timing seemed right for the UK premiere of Hannah Eisendle’s Heliosis – the name is the medical term for sunstroke. But this eight-minute piece, written by the Viennese composer last year, doesn’t depict the kind of heat-fug hanging over the parched grass of Hyde Park; it’s more a Death Valley heat, with faint high-frequency sounds from the strings and itchy percussion conjuring images of skittering lizards culminating, Stravinsky-like, in a thudding dance. It’s musically rooted in one spot, but highly evocative.
The orchestra’s centre of gravity moved lower for Dvořák’s Symphony No 7, making for a velvety sound that was sometimes hard for the wind soloists to penetrate. Again, the rhythms were lively, the corners neatly turned, but here Alsop’s momentum felt a little relentless. It was just right, though, for the two encores: first Gerhard E Winkler’s Pussy-r-Polka, which sounded like Johann Strauss dancing across an eight-lane freeway, and then Strauss’s Thunder and Lightning Polka, a deftly served slice of real Viennoiserie.