BBC Proms 2012 – Eight performances not to miss

Laurence Joyce presents his guide to this year's classical music extravaganza

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2012 is a big year for Britain. Some events come around just once in a lifetime – the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, the Transit of Venus and the London Olympics – but the world’s biggest music festival, the BBC Proms, is something we can count on every summer.

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Visiting European orchestras this year include the great Berlin and Vienna Philharmonic Orchestras and the Leipzig Gewandhaus, and from the Americas, the St Louis Symphony and the Sao Paolo Symphony Orchestra. Conductors Daniel Barenboim, Bernard Haitink, Valery Gergiev and Simon Rattle direct performances of music ranging from Beethoven to Boulez and beyond, with such international soloists as pianists Murray Perahia, Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Imogen Cooper, Nelson Freire and Yefim Bronfman, violinists Nicola Benedetti, Tasmin Little, Christian Tetzlaff and Nikolai Znaider, bass-baritone Bryn Terfel, tenor Joseph Calleja, and the famous flautist James Galway.

On the lighter side, there are two Proms conducted by John Wilson: a Broadway gala night and a complete performance of My Fair Lady. Popular composer Eric Whitacre makes his Proms debut in a late-night selection of his own works, Simon Callow presents a celebration of Ivor Novello and there’s even a special Wallace & Gromit Prom.

All the concerts are broadcast live on Radio 3 and in HD sound via bbc.co.uk/radio3 and are also available on “listen again” for seven days after broadcast at bbc.co.uk/proms. Many are also televised live or later on BBC1, BBC2, BBC4 and BBC HD throughout the season. Each Prom is a unique musical event, and different concerts will interest some people more than others. Here, then, is a list of the eight really special Proms I shall be marking in my diary.

1. Prom 9: 7.30pm Friday 20 July

Daniel Barenboim’s bridge-building West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, made up entirely of Arab and Israeli players, begin their Beethoven/Boulez series in which, over five concerts, they play important works by Pierre Boulez and all of the Beethoven symphonies, culminating in the glorious Ninth on Friday 27 July, the opening day of the London 2012 Olympics.

Under Barenboim’s inspired guidance, these young musicians are sure to produce some wonderful performances not only of the Beethoven but also of the very exacting Boulez works. And there’s a late-night Prom on Thursday 26 July when members of the orchestra perform Beethoven’s Piano Quintet in E flat and the work that put Boulez on the musical map in the 1950s, his iconic chamber masterpiece Le marteau sans maître.

2. Prom 46: 7.30pm Thursday 16 August

Andrew Manze, associate guest conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, is conducting all nine of the Vaughan Williams symphonies over the next few seasons, and in this Prom he conducts Nos 4, 5 and 6 all on the same programme.

Manze is on a mission to break down some of the stale preconceptions about the music of Vaughan Williams and to “rehabilitate him in people’s minds as an important figure in the music-making of this country”. Whether you need converting or not, this is a rare opportunity to hear these three powerful works of the 1930s and 40s over the course of a single evening.

3. Prom 47: 7.45pm Friday 17 August

A night of mischief and mayhem to mark the centenary of the birth of American composer John Cage, who during in his career uprooted every musical rule in the book, along with millions of mushrooms. (When asked how he became interested in mushrooms, Cage once said that in bookstores he always found that the books about mushrooms were just to the left of the books about music.)

Ilan Volkov conducts the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in performances of Atlas eclipticalis (where the notes are derived from star charts) and Concerto for Prepared Piano (soloist John Tilbury), in which the piano sounds are altered by the addition to the strings of nuts, bolts, pieces of felt and other objects. Plus works for percussion ensemble, with cassette players and amplified cactus. Cage’s genius and humour shines through this concert. As Cage himself was fond of saying: “Music never stops, it is we who turn away”.

4. Prom 52: 7.00pm Wednesday 22 August

No starter, no pudding, just one main course, but what a dish it is – Prokofiev’s fairy-tale ballet score Cinderella, played by the London Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Russian maestro Valery Gergiev. These LSO/Gergiev performances of the great dance scores have been a regular Proms fixture in recent years, and long may they continue. Perfect readings and a sumptuousness in performance that only the Albert Hall can offer. 

5. Proms 63: 7.30pm Thursday 30 August

Another Proms fixture – Simon Rattle and his Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra – and a really superb programme of orchestral works: Ligeti’s Atmosphères, the Prelude to Act 1 of Wagner’s Lohengrin, Sibelius’s Fourth Symphony and, after the interval, two fantastic ballet scores: Debussy’s delicious Jeux and Ravel’s extravagant and scintillating Daphnis and Chloe, Suite No 2. This is the gold medal winner. You won’t hear orchestral playing of a higher standard.

6. Prom 66: 4.00pm Saturday 1 September

Cameron Carpenter is very far from the traditional corduroy jacket and suede shoes of the archetypal organist. This flamboyant genre-bending American is equally at home on a Hammond or a Wurlitzer as the colossal Royal Albert Hall instrument on which he will be performing an all-Bach programme in the first of two afternoon recitals.

The last time he played here, in 2008, his programme included a sonata extemporised on great British television themes, but here he will be paying homage to Bach in the traditional manner: by improvising on the musical notes of Bach’s name – B-A-C-H (in German: B flat, A, C and B natural). In Sunday’s recital, in another programme of Bach, he finishes with his own arrangement of themes by Bach and Mahler, Syncretic Prelude and Fugue in D, a work that Carpenter says “pushes me to my extreme utmost of both virtuosity and expressivity”.

Now that, for someone described as a “Vladimir Horowitz of the organ” and “a talent of Mozartean proportions” should be quite something.

7. Prom 71: 7.30pm Tuesday 4 September

Believe it or not, this will be the first appearance at the Proms of one of the top American orchestras, the St Louis Symphony, under their music director, David Robertson (also principal guest conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra). They are joined by Christian Tetzlaff in a performance of Beethoven’s demanding Violin Concerto, a work the German virtuoso interprets in his own assured, intelligent and compelling way.

Former Hollywood tennis partners Schoenberg and Gershwin share the second half with the expressionist Five Orchestral Pieces and the exuberant An American in Paris. Robertson and the St Louis orchestra have the pedigree to make this a stunning evening of music. 

8. Prom 73: 7.30pm Thursday 6 September

There have been some magical readings of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 4 at the Proms over the years but Murray Perahia’s performance with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra under conductor Bernard Haitink will surely be one of the very best. Perahia and Haitink have built an astonishing musical rapport over the years and we can expect a truly outstanding act of musical collaboration. And no one can touch Haitink when it comes to Bruckner. After the interval he leads the orchestra Bruckner considered “the most superior” in the composer’s sublime swansong, the Ninth Symphony.

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Well, that’s it. But don’t forget Kylie Minogue in Proms in the Park on the Last Night!