BBC Proms 2011: 12 Proms not to miss, and why

We pick out the must-see concerts in the annual celebration of classical music

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From Friday 15 July to Saturday 10 September 2011, the BBC Proms proves once again that it is the greatest music festival of them all, with 74 concerts at the Royal Albert Hall, eight Proms Chamber Music Concerts, four Proms Saturday Matinées and a galaxy of musical stars from Ax to Zinman. The BBC orchestras bear the brunt of the concerts, and the international visitors this year include the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.

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All the concerts are live on Radio 3, streamed online via bbc.co.uk/radio3, where for the first time in 2011 all Proms will be broadcast in HD Sound, and available on demand for seven days via bbc.co.uk/proms. Selected concerts are televised on BBC1, BBC2, BBC4 and BBC HD, and are also available on demand for seven days after broadcast via bbc.co.uk/proms.

Every concert is an important musical event, but what follows is my top 12 Proms from this year’s season. As usual, I’ve made my selections on the basis of pedigree and quality, or something that makes a particular concert special.

1. Prom 27, Thursday 4 August, 7.00pm
Hillevi Martinpelto (soprano), BBCSSO/Donald Runnicles. Robin Holloway: Fifth Concerto for Orchestra; Strauss: Four Last Songs; Brahms: Symphony No 2 in D.

Strauss’s Four Last Songs is one of those works that really succeed in combining the personal and the universal, the mortal and the immortal. Hillevi Martinpelto has the voice and the sensitivity to make this a fine performance, especially with Donald Runnicles in charge of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. Robin Holloway’s new work is a bonus.

2. Prom 29, Friday 5 August, 7.30pm
Miah Persson (soprano), Anna Larsson (mezzo), National Youth Choir of Great Britain, Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra/Gustavo Dudamel. Mahler: Symphony No 2.

Fireworks are never far away when Gustavo (the Dude) Dudamel takes the baton in front of the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra. Who can forget their tumultuous debut Prom in 2007! Mahler’s spectacular second symphony is the only work on the programme tonight, with top soloists soprano Miah Persson and mezzo Anna Larsson.

3. Prom 31, Saturday 6 August, 10.00pm
Nigel Kennedy (violin). Bach solo violin works.

Violinist Nigel Kennedy can be an exasperating performer but the quality of his playing and his deep musical understanding are never in doubt. In this late-night recital he’s playing an all-Bach programme, including two of the violin Partitas. As long as we get more Bach than Kennedy, this will be truly wonderful.

4. Prom 36, Wednesday 10 August, 10.00pm
Synergy Vocals, Ensemble Modern/Steve Reich. Steve Reich: Clapping Music; Electric Counterpoint; Music for 18 Musicians.

In another late-night Prom, one of the founding fathers of American Minimalism, Steve Reich, celebrates his 75th birthday this year with a concert of seminal works. It’s hard to believe his Music for 18 Musicians has not been heard at the Proms before. The man himself will be on the platform.

5. Prom 38, Friday 12 August, 7.00pm
Chloë Hanslip (violin), BBC Concert Orchestra/Keith Lockhart. Film Music Prom.

Keith Lockhart and the BBC Concert Orchestra are pretty much the perfect combination for a programme of great film music, including a tribute to John Barry, who died earlier this year. One of my personal favourites is Bernard Herrmann’s score to Hitchcock’s North by Northwest; his music to The Man Who Knew Too Much, Citizen Kane and Psycho is also on the bill.

6. Prom 47, Friday 19 August, 7.00pm
Emanuel Ax, Chamber Orchestra of Europe/Bernard Haitink. Brahms: Symphony No 3 in F; Piano Concerto No 1 in D minor.

A coming together of two musical giants: pianist Emanuel Ax and conductor Bernard Haitink in the first of two concerts in which they perform the two Brahms piano concertos with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. This should be stunning. Each concert also features a Brahms symphony: tonight the Third, and on Saturday (see below) the magnificent Fourth.

7. Prom 48, Friday 19 August, 10.00pm
Angela Hewitt, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Andrew Manze. Brahms; Three Intermezzos, Op 117: Nos 1 and 2. Schumann: Introduction and Concert Allegro, Op 134; Brahms: Piano Quartet No 1 in G minor.

A late-night concert featuring another wonderful pianist, the Canadian Angela Hewitt. Best known for her definitive Bach performances, she brings that same musical intelligence to bear on works by Brahms and Schumann. The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Andrew Manze accompanies her in the Schumann before performing Schoenberg’s extraordinary orchestral arrangement of the Brahms Piano Quartet No 1, which uses some surprising 20th-century effects whilst remaining faithful to the spirit of Brahms.

8. Prom 49, Saturday 20 August, 7.30pm
Emanuel Ax, Chamber Orchestra of Europe/Bernard Haitink. Brahms: Piano Concerto No 2 in B flat; Symphony No 4 in E minor.

Emanuel Ax and Bernard Haitink perform the second of Brahms’s piano concertos with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. See Prom 47 above.

9. Prom 57, Saturday 27 August, 7.30pm
Maria João Pires (piano), Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich/David Zinman. Anders Hillborg: Cold Heat (first UK performance); Mozart: Piano Concerto No 27 in B flat, K595. Beethoven: Symphony No 3 in E flat (Eroica).

One of the high points of last season was pianist Maria João Pires’s late night Chopin recital. Intense yet intimate, this was artistry of a very high order. In this Prom she brings that intimacy to the Concerto in B flat by Mozart, with the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra conducted by David Zinman. Also on the programme is a new work by Swedish composer Anders Hillborg and Beethoven’s Eroica.

10. Prom 68, Monday 5 September, 7.30pm
Hélène Grimaud (piano), Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra/Manfred Honeck. Braunfels: Fantastic Appearances of a Theme of Hector Berlioz. Beethoven: Piano Concerto No 4 in G; Tchaikovsky: Symphony No 5 in E minor.

Hélène Grimaud once said of performing live “if there is nothing out of the ordinary and spontaneous then you may as well stay at home and listen to the CD”. Here, the charismatic French pianist plays Beethoven’s fourth concerto with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and a thrilling performance is guaranteed. Manfred Honeck conducts the first of the American orchestra’s two Proms concerts, both featuring composers’ Fifth symphonies. Tonight it’s Tchaikovsky.

11. Prom 69, Tuesday 6 September, 7.30pm
Anne-Sophie Mutter (violin), Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra/Manfred Honeck. Wagner: Prelude, Act 1: Lohengrin. Wolfgang Rihm: Gesungene Zeit. Mahler: Symphony No 5.

The violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter is a champion of several contemporary works for violin and orchestra, including Wolfgang Rihm’s lyrical expressionist poem Gesungene Zeit (Time Chant), which she has recorded with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Her persuasive advocacy comes here with the backing of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, who also perform Mahler’s heart-wrenching Fifth Symphony. This will be an emotionally exhausting concert, but well worth it.

12. Prom 72, Thursday 8 September, 7.30pm
Janine Jensen (violin), Philadelphia Orchestra/Charles Dutoit. Sibelius: Finlandia; Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto in D; Rachmaninov: Symphonic Dances. Ravel: La valse.

Charles Dutoit brings another great American orchestra, the Philadelphia, to the Proms in a concert that offers two of the 20th century’s best orchestral waltzes: Ravel’s La valse and, in Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances, the intoxicating second movement. Janine Jensen is the soloist in Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto and Sibelius’s Finlandia completes the programme. Traditional Proms fare, certainly, and unashamedly romantic, but performed here by some of the very best in the business.

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So that’s it. They are my dozen Proms not to miss this year. It was a difficult decision to exclude Prom 33 (Monday 8 August, 7.30pm). The young German-Japanese pianist Alice Sara Ott has been a last-minute replacement for Hélène Grimaud, Lang Lang and Murray Perahia. She makes her Proms debut with Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor. It may well be the performance of the season. Time will tell.