Saturday 16 June 2007

BBC Proms 2007

Well, it's that time of the year: a couple of months or so on from the release of the official Edinburgh Festival programme and it is the turn of the BBC and their annual extravaganza. Of course, the two are slightly different beasts, Edinburgh's offering being far more diverse, the BBC's far longer.

So, what are the highlights this year? Or rather, what does it appear the highlights are going to be? More accurately, what am I, personally, going to be making an effort to listen to. Well, given the title of this blog, there is, of course, but one place to start: Prom 39 on Sunday the 12th of August, beginning at 4pm and lasting until, well, a lot later. Yes, it is the final instalment of the Proms Ring cycle and not only do we get the treat of Christine Brewer as Brunnhilde, but we get Donald Runnicles conducting. Never mind that, frustratingly, they have scheduled it over the opening weekend of the Festival, I had already left the night blank and plan to dash down to hear it (the flight is booked, though there was a brief and terrifying mix-up with them failing to post out my ticket, and apparently all the ones for this Prom, but the box office staff assured me I had one and, sure enough, it arrived a week later). Runnicles and Wagner are not a combination I am in any hurry to pass up.

But what else do we have to look forward to? Well, given last year's abandoned Beethoven 9th, it forms the curtain raiser to this year's festivities in Prom 1. The BBCSO is on duty, conducted by Jiri Belohlavek (a conductor about whom I'm a little lukewarm). More intriguing fare comes a few nights later with Prom 5, where conductor David Robertson (who so impressed with Beethoven's Christ on the Mount of Olives at the 2005 Edinburgh festival and last year's Meistersinger) leads the BBCSO in Bernstein's second symphony and Ives' 4th along with a commission from Sam Hayden. Robertson returns a week or so later for Prom 13 including more Beethoven, this time one of my favourites: the 7th symphony (along another new commission, this time from Brett Dean). Two days later and it's time for Glydebourne's visit (your correspondent will be visiting the festival at the start of July for the Matthew Passion, work prevented me from going for Cosi). This year in Prom 15, Vladimir Jurowski brings the LPO for the fun of Verdi's Macbeth. They will have their work cut out for them to erase fond memories of Charles Mackerras's performance at the 2003 Edinburgh Festival with the SCO and Violeta Urmana.

The treats come thick and fast at this point as the very next day we get Marin Alsop's visit with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. I have good memories of this combination who, until I moved north of the border, were my local orchestra and who, among other things, helped me fall in love with Mahler's 7th symphony. In Prom 16 they bring us Beethoven's Leonore no.3 overture, Barber's violin concerto and Copeland's 3rd symphony. This is swiftly followed by Prom 17, a late night programme just an hour afterwards from Richard Hickox and Collegium Musicum 90 who bring us Schubert's D950 mass. Prom 21 is an altogether odder offering, part of the Brass Day, a programme with a number of curiosities, but demanding a listen for the performance by Charles Mackerras and the BBC Philharmonic of Janacek's Sinfonietta. The only shame is that he isn't bringing us a bigger programme, particular after the fine efforts of the last few years (which have included a wonderful HMS Pinafore and some fine Mozart last year).

Monday 30th July and Prom 23 brings us two interesting things: a new commission and Esa-Pekka Salonen, about the leave the LA Philharmonic to take over at the Philharmonia, he will be leading the BBC Symphony Orchestra in the European premier of his own piano concerto. Annoyingly, I have just realised that, since I have just bought a ticket to hear the Jacques Loussier Trio at the Edinburgh Jazz festival that night, I shall have to set a tape. Prom 24 brings the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra with their chief conductor, the talented young Ilan Volkov. He is paired with pianist Steven Osborne (the last time I heard the two together was at the 2004 Edinburgh festival where they played a wonderful Bartok concerto, Volkov followed this with a stunning Bluebeard's Castle). Their bringing Sibelius's Tapiola (which will be interesting, though in the BBC Scottish's recent Sibelius cycle Volkov didn't show a huge affinity with the composer), Britten's piano concerto and Debussy's La Mer. Two night's later the same team is back for Prom 26 and Mahler's 9th symphony (sans Osborne, obviously).

Prom 29 brings the National Youth Orchestra. This year Mark Elder is in charge and they will be playing Prokofiev's first piano concerto and Shostakovich's 7th symphony 'Leningrad'. Proms 32 and 33 bring the BBC Philharmonic under Noseda. Their first programme includes Beethoven's lovely 8th symphony (much underrated) and Schumann's second, their second features Britten's Sinfonia da Requiem and Cooke's completion of Mahler's 10th symphony (an endeavour that has never really agreed with me). Prom 38 promises to be something special. Colin Davis brings the EU Youth Orchestra to play Brahms (the tragic overture and the 3rd symphony) and then Sibelius, of whom he is one of the finest conductors there is, and the 5th symphony. This is followed by something I may have mentioned earlier: Donald Runnicles, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Christine Brewer and Wagner's Gotterdammerung. Yes, it's Prom 39. What a disgrace the BBC aren't televising it.

Prom 42 brings us more Sibelus, this time from Vanska and the Lahti Symphony Orchestra. Given my lukewarm response to many of their recordings, though this contrasts markedly with my reaction to Vanska in the concert hall, I'll be curious to hear how they get on with The Tempest and Symphony no.7. Another worthy Sibelian (though sadly not conducting the composer) comes a few days later for Prom 46. Sakari Oramo and the CBSO bring Elgar's The Apostles. Radio 3 recently broadcast a 3 day mini-festival of this team celebrating the Elgar anniversary with this, Gerontius and The Kingdom (which I haven't yet got round to listening to), it elicited some interesting responses, certainly it doesn't seem like Oramo's is a traditional approach. Well worth tuning in for.

A few paragraphs back I meantioned Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle. By coincidence it appears this year from the Philharmonia under the baton of Christoph von Dohnanyi, their outgoing director, in Prom 49, along with a suite from Thomas Ades's opera Powder Her Face. Another new music highlight comes the next day in Prom 50 as John Adams leads the BBC Symphony Orchestra in a programme that includes Copeland and his own work, most excitingly of all the world premier of a symphony from his most recent opera Dr Atomic (the story of atomic pioneer Robert Oppenheimer). Rumour has it this is coming to ENO for the 2008 season, though I'd rather have heard the premier in San Francisco under one Donald Runnicles; but this is good news, if true. Wednesday's Prom 51 features Claudio Abbado doing one of the things he does best: Mahler, and this time the 3rd symphony. As those who've read my thoughts on the 2005 Edinburgh programme will be aware, this is one of my favourite works. Abbado has never quite pulled it off for me on disc. His most recent attempt with the Berlin Philharmonic had a near perfect reading of the first 5 movements but the finale underwhelmed. Earlier, with the Vienna Philharmonic, the finale was fair enough but the rest didn't really engage me. I'm also not wild about what I've heard from the Lucerne Orchestra (a scratch group of Berlin, Vienna and other players built around the Mahler Chamber Orchestra's core), Abbado's reading of the second symphony with them was not too memorable. But if Abbado is on form, there are few finer Mahlerians.

Great treats lie in store a few days later as Bernard Hatink brings the Concertgebouw for Prom 53 and Bruckner's 8th symphony (though, personally, I'd be more curious to hear him in something like the 3rd, 5th or 7th). Later that evening, Pierre-Laurent Aimard and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra perform Beethoven's second piano concerto in Prom 54. This is promising (in light of his fine survey of the concertos with Harnoncourt and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe), but he also going to be conducting Haydn's 102nd symphony and it will be interesting to see how he makes the jump. Prom 55 brings more from Hatink and the Concertgebouw and this time the real treat: Wagner. Haitink's Wagner is rather special, there is some lovely music in his recording of the Ring which is, at times, revelatory. What a shame that it's spoilt by the Brunnhilde of Eva Marton. Here we get the prelude to act I of Parsifal and the Good Friday music as well as the prelude and liebestod from Tristan, along with some Debussy.

Prom 59 features another orchestra with whom Haitink has been closely associated in recent years: the LSO. They come under the baton of their new music director Valery Gergiev playing a programme of Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev. It will be interesting listening: their recent CD cycle of the Prokofiev symphonies didn't always have the fire that was present in the finest readings. Of course, more interesting will be to hear how he fares next year when his programme seems to rely less on Russian composers. He is apparently doing all the Mahler symphonies - I'd be going if I were based in London. Another big European orchestra comes a few days later for a pair of concerts: the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra under their director Mariss Jansons (fresh from their appearances in Edinburgh). In Prom 60 gives us Strauss's Also sprach Zarathustra and Sibelius's second symphony and Prom 62 is Honegger's 3rd symphony and Beethoven's 9th, making its second appearance this year, and this is surely the one the smart money is on.

Prom 64 brings Belohlavek and the BBC Symphony Orchestra for a commission made for the night's soloist, percussionist Evelyn Glennie, as well as Mahler's 1st symphony. What a shame we aren't having this from Jansons who is a master of it. Belohlavek's Mahle hasn't really grabbed mer (he played a rather disappointing 9th at the 2005 Edinburgh festival). More promising is Proms Saturday Matinee 4, which is an all Britten programme from Edward Gardner, who has recently been doing fine things at ENO, and the Nash Ensemble. That evening comes the first of two programmes from Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. In Prom 64 they play Ives, Strauss and Shostakovich, in Prom 65 they bring the last Mahler of the year, the 7th. I recently acquired their disc of the 5th and found it rather disappointingly dull, so it will be interesting to see they get on with this far trickier work. My final highlights are the two programmes from Barenboim and the Vienna Philharmonic. Prom 66 features Schubert's playful, Mozartian, 5th symphony and Bruckner's 4th (which was probably the highlight of his CD cycle with the Berlin Philharmonic). Prom 68 is more adventurous featuring the music of Bartok, Ligeti, Enescu and Kodaly.

There are doubtless some who wonder why the next three nights (featuring the Leipzig Gewandhaus under Chailly and the Boston Symphony under Levine) aren't getting a proper mention. The truth is that I have never cared much for either conductor, Levine is, I feel, particularly overrated: I don't know anyone who can make Wagner duller. I am not plugging the last night either; I'm not a fan. It will be interesting to see how Belohlavek copes, certainly he can't manage as badly as Slatkin used to (famous last words).

Of course, the list is far from exhaustive. To find that you must trawl through the unfriendly Proms website (or lay down £6 for the printed programme, rather a lot given the proportion taken up by advertising). There are a number of fine and intriguing things that I haven't mentioned, but the above is what I shall be making an effort to hear (or at least tape, as on many of the nights I'll be otherwise engaged with the small festivals we have up here).

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