The Proms they are a-changin’. In fact they’ve been a-changin’ for years, ever since the rock band Soft Machine put in an appearance in 1970, but for some reason it seems more noticeable now than ever before. Pet Shop Boys, Laura Mvula, Paloma Faith and Rufus Wainwright all have concerts to themselves this year, and the John Wilson Orchestra, which this year performs Kiss Me, Kate, is such a regular fixture as to have become almost mainstream. And, chasing the demographic to its extreme, there are two CBeebies Proms this year at which very young children can listen to music by Gustav Holst and Henry Wood’s Sailor’s Hornpipe played by the BBC Philharmonic, all introduced by Robert the Robot and other stars of children’s TV.
But these are just a few out of the 90-odd events taking place and the focus remains firmly on the “classical” repertoire. Proms and Radio 3 director Roger Wright, who is stepping down from both positions this year, puts it this way: “You can’t just sit there in the Albert Hall or Radio 3 and simply expect audiences who have no experience of this music to find you.”
Visiting for the first time are orchestras from China, Greece, Iceland, Lapland, Qatar, Singapore, South Korea and Turkey, along with such great names as the Berlin Philharmonic, the Cleveland, the Budapest Festival and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestras. There are no themes as such this year, but the centenary of the First World War is remembered in several concerts, the 150th anniversary of the birth of Richard Strauss is celebrated by the performance of three of his operas — Der Rosenkavalier, Elektra and Salome — and this year’s octogenarians, Harrison Birtwistle and Peter Maxwell Davies, do not go unsung, with a total of 16 works being played between them.
But do remember that anniversaries, birthdays and tie-ins are the playthings of broadcasters and concert schedulers. They are false gods and not in themselves a guarantee of artistic excellence. So, whereas I will definitely be listening to Rosenkavalier, I shall not be tuning in to hear the Mary Poppins singalong on the Last Night.
All the concerts are broadcast live on Radio 3 and via bbc.co.uk/radio3 and are available on “listen again” for seven days after broadcast at bbc.co.uk/proms. There are also broadcasts this year on Radio 1, Radio 2 and Radio 5 Live. The First and Last Nights are televised live on BBC1 and BBC2, and many concerts throughout the season are also recorded for later broadcast on BBC4. Each Prom is a unique musical event and different concerts will interest some people more than others. But for me the following eight Proms really stand out:
Prom 6: 6.30pm Tuesday 22 July
This critically acclaimed Glyndebourne production of Strauss's best-loved opera Der Rosenkavalier won warm reviews for the singing of Kate Royal as the Marschallin, with honourable mentions going to Tara Erraught as Octavian and Teodora Gheorghiu as Sophie, and for the playing of the London Philharmonic under Robin Ticciati. It’s being performed here in a semi-staged version. And don’t miss Strauss’s Salome on Saturday 30 August and Elektra the following night. These two glorious title roles are sung by sopranos Nina Stemme with the Deutsche Oper Berlin conducted by Donald Runnicles, and Christiana Goerke with the BBC Singers and Symphony Orchestra under Semyon Bychkov.
Prom 40: 6.30pm Saturday 16 August
There’s no doubting conductor Bernard Haitink’s mastery in the symphonies of Mahler. He conjured up a deeply moving performance of the Ninth Symphony with the same orchestra, the magnificent LSO, at the Proms five years ago and this performance of the Fourth, with Camilla Tilling the soprano soloist, should be one to remember. Before the interval Haitink interprets Schubert’s Fifth Symphony, a work the conductor describes as “very innocent and light”, that goes straight to the emotional nerve centre.
Prom 50: 7.30pm Sunday 24 August
I always look for a connection between the music and the performers, and this Prom scores an exciting three out of four in the combination of the Czech conductor Jiri Belohlavek, the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra and the Dvorak Cello Concerto. Bohemians all, the music will come as second nature to them. But the fourth element, the soloist, is by no means a weak link. The young American cellist Alisa Weilerstein made her Proms debut four years ago in a dynamic and riveting performance of Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No 1 and earlier this year her recording of the Dvorak with tonight’s orchestra and conductor was released to much acclaim — “Spine tingling” was one reviewer’s reaction. And there’s romance here. Weilerstein met her husband, the conductor Rafael Payare, when she rehearsed this work with the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra. They were married last August.
The concert begins with Janacek’s From the House of the Dead and concludes with Beethoven’s “apotheosis of the dance”, the Seventh Symphony.
Proms 52 and 53: 7.30pm Monday 25 August; 7.00pm Tuesday 26 August
Hungarian conductor Ivan Fischer founded the Budapest Festival Orchestra in 1983. Since then they’ve been known for their superb performances and their surprising and innovative programming, exemplified by the Audience Choice concert they gave at their last visit to the Royal Albert Hall in September 2011, when the works on the programme were chosen by a raffle conducted among members of the audience, the winning tickets (and choice of music) being drawn from the bell of the tuba. At first glance, the works to be played in the first of their two Proms this year look rather unexciting until you factor in the sympathy, instinctive understanding and pure daring this Eastern European orchestra will bring to Brahms’s Hungarian Dances, a Viennese waltz and a polka by Josef and Johann Strauss, and the Hungarian composer Kodaly’s Dances of Galanta. A short march by Mozart and Schubert’s Unfinished symphony complete the programme. Simple fare, perhaps, but this concert has the potential to be one of the highlights of the entire season.
For their second Prom, Ivan Fischer conducts performances of the Third and Fourth Symphonies of Brahms. There’s a majesty to Brahms’s symphonies and Fischer and his European colleagues will bring just the right flavour to the autumnal textures of the Third and the nobility of the Fourth, with its melancholy first movement and portentous finale. A wonderful performance is in prospect.
Prom 54: 10.15pm Tuesday 26 August
John Eliot Gardiner has been conducting the large choral masterpieces of the Baroque, classical and Romantic repertoire for fifty years now, and each one of them has received the full Gardiner treatment. His scholarship and attention to detail results in authentic performances of great dramatic impact. In this late-night Prom he leads his Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, Monteverdi Choir and soloists in Beethoven’s Missa solemnis, the troubled composer’s account of a “tumultuous spiritual journey, in which we acknowledge doubt and search for redemption”. Powerful stuff.
Proms 64 and 66: 6.30pm Friday 5 September; 7.00pm Saturday 6 September
The appearance of Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra at the Proms is always a very special occasion, and this year they bring two very different programmes. In Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances and Stravinsky’s Firebird we hear the 20th century at its most exuberant and energetic: Rachmaninov’s superb orchestral showpiece contains one of the finest symphonic waltzes ever written, and Stravinsky’s folk-inspired ballet score for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes helped to establish the young composer at the beginning of his career. Bach’s glorious St Matthew Passion the following evening is no less dramatic a work, despite the gravity of its subject matter. The vocal and instrumental solos are heartbreakingly beautiful, and the movements for chorus, especially at the beginning and the end, are among the most musically powerful of all his works. Bach’s sublime masterpiece is performed here in a semi-staged version directed by Peter Sellars.
And that’s almost it for another year. On the last Friday (Prom 75: 7.30pm 12 September) the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra under Alan Gilbert play Beethoven’s Symphony No 9 (Choral), and the following day Sakari Oramo presides over his first Last Night of the Proms, with soprano Elizabeth Watts, tenor John Daszak, baritone Roderick Williams and violinist Janine Jansen the star soloists. The Last Night festivities will, as usual, be televised live on BBC1 and 2, and can also be heard, like every one of this year’s Proms, live on Radio 3.