Sunday 4 May 2008

BBC Proms 2008

Well, that other minor arts festival, the BBC Proms, has recently announced its programme for 2008, and especially given the presence of one Donald Runnicles there is infinitely greater than in Edinburgh (one concert versus none), it deserves a mention for that at least.

Actually, I think this is the most compelling programme in my recent memory. I was never much of a fan of Kenyon and had serious concerns as to Roger Wright's abilities to programme the festival. Still, it seems very interesting. There seem to be two complaints most loudly on the BBC message boards: no Bruckner (Britten fans also feel slighted aggrieved) and from some people who clearly don't recognise the NY and Chicago orchestras when they see them, that there aren't many big name bands. The second is patently nonsense, as is the first, though less obviously so. It's a bit refreshing not to have endless performances of the Bruckner 4, 7, 8 and 9. It will be all the sweeter when it returns. Britten is possibly more of an issue, but staged opera and the War Requiem notwithstanding, a lot of his compositions are better suited to a smaller hall. However, I expect we can see a major celebration of his work in a couple of years time when his centenary comes round (if not, you will hear me complain then).

As usual all Proms are broadcast live on Radio 3, available on listen again (if you can stomach the poor sound quality, when the BBC will address this laughable situation I don't know) and some on TV, this year more spread out than previously, when the broadcasts have been concentrated in the opening and closing weeks. It's a shame that all are not televised. Clearly this is an issue of cost, and yet given all the rubbish the BBC turns out, there is surely enough cash from the licence fees of those of us who care about culture to do something. It would be the best riposte to Margaret Hodge's silly, and to some extent mis-reported comments. When we can expect a cultured culture secretary I don't know.

So, what will I me making an extra effort for. Well, owing to extra commitments up here in August, there will be nothing on the scale of last summer's mad dash down for Gotterdammerung. For me, the first noteworthy is Prom 2. Veteran specialist in British music Vernon Handley makes a welcome return with the BBCSO in a programme that includes some Bax and Elgar's violin concerto though, wrongly, the programme hits the headlines more for the presence of one Nigel Kennedy. I'll be listening for Tod. Prom 6 features the ongoing strand of Messiaen celebrations as well as the organ. Olivier Latry plays L'ascension and Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum and is then joined by the Ochestre Philharmonique de Radio France and Chung for Saint-Saens' organ symphony. Prom 7 features Roger Norrington and so should be avoided. On Saturday 26th July, Prom 12 brings Thomas Ades and the CBSO to play a programme that includes his recent commission Tevot, which was premiered by the BPO not too long ago. Prom 13, into which I will probably not be tuning, brings the Dr Who Prom: a mix of music from the series and other stuff, such as The Ride of the Valkyries, Jupiter from Holst's Planets and Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man. Not my cup of tea, but if someone listens to the Copeland who wouldn't otherwise, then job well done. I don't have the problem with it that some people appear to.

Prom 14 is worth a listen though: Messiaen's La Transfiguration de Notre Seigneur Jesus-Christ. This mighty work is brought by Fischer and the BBCNOW. Prom 19, on Friday 1st August, brings Paul Lewis, and better yet in Beethoven's 4th piano concerto (apparently he is to record the concerti, I'm not sure with whom, Makerras and the SCO would be ideal though). In my view one of the finest players of Beethoven around meaning that this concert, with the RLPO and Petrenko, should be a treat. Things are better still in Prom 23. Donald Runnicles gives Das Lied von der Erde and Beethoven's first symphony. He is joined by the BBC Scottish and the originally planned soloists from last week's Glasgow concert.

Prom 38, on Thursday 14th August, is an absolute must: Barenboim brings the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. This mix of Arab and Israeli children play with the most incredible passion, and to a remarkably high standard for a youth orchestra. They will bring works by Haydn, Schoenberg and Brahms' 4th symphony, not to mention a late night Prom of Boulez and Stravinsky. Things come thick and fast as the next night Boulez himself joins the BBCSO for an all Janacek programme including the Glagolitic Mass. And on the Saturday, the man who should have been conducting that programme too, Sir Charles Mackerras, appears with the OAE to perform Handel's Belshazzar for Prom 41. On the Sunday Jennifer Bate, whose survey of the Messiaen organ works I have greatly enjoyed, plays some of them.

More Janacek, one of the chief reasons I am impressed by the programme, comes in Prom 47 from Belholavek and the BBCSO. Mistakenly, though, he chooses to pair Osud with Dvorak's slavonic dances op.46. Both works are fine, but Janacek's 80 minute single act opera needs no partner, especially just for the sake of filling up the programme.

Proms 57 and 58 bring a visit from Maazel and NYPO, the programme isn't the most inspiring but I always like to hear Tchaikovsky's 4th and Gershwin's piano concerto should be interesting. Prom 62 on 1st September brings Colin Davis with Sibelius, enough in itself to get my radio tuned in, but more so with the superb Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester, the finest youth orchestra I've ever heard (helped by the fact that they tend to be older than most). Proms 64 and 65 feature the Berlin Philharmonic with Rattle and programmes including Messiaen's Turangalila Symphony, Shostakovich's 10th and Brahms' 3rd.

The crown jewel of the Messiaen celebrations comes on Sunday 7th with a concert performance from Netherlands Opera of Saint Francis of Assisi. This vast work is rather special, and if I wasn't out of the country for that date, I might be a little annoyed that I'd made arrangements to go to Amsterdam to see it staged.

My last highlight concerns the two visits for Proms 71 and 72 of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. This musical titan is led by their new principal conductor Bernard Haitink. Unfortunately he has chosen Mahler 6, which is not one of that composer's works in which he excels (3 or 9 would have been better bets), and though the new Chicago recording may yet turn my view around, what little I have listened to does not indicate this will be the case. The other problem is that the soloist for Mozart's K491 concerto in Prom 72 is Murray Perahia, whose survey of the concertos on Sony is one of the most overrated discs I've come across.

Lastly, Roger Norrington is doing the last night, as if I needed another reason not to pay any attention to it.

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