BBC Radio 3 is not always what it could be. I, along with many others, groaned when they announced recently they'd start having a sales chart. Still, flawed though it may be, there is not another institution in the world that provides anything like the Proms. Even the Edinburgh festival, though it offers a greater diversity of art forms and fully staged opera, does not provided the same quantity of live music.
This year there are 89 concerts (13 of them chamber performances) and though one might quibble with aspects of the programme, Where's Runnicles will admit to having been on tenterhooks leading up to the announcement a month ago.
This is the year of Mahler, the 150th anniversary of his birth and the centenary of the first performance of the Symphony of a Thousand, so plenty of his work was expected. Indeed, many predictions had money on a complete cycle. We don't quite get that, though 1, 3, 4, 5, 7 and 8 are present, along with various songs. This is a bit more than normal, though not hugely so.
The eighth, of course, we are getting in Edinburgh from Runnicles. At the Proms, it provides the opening concert with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Bělohlávek, for my money not as fine a Mahler conductor as some, though it is a good few years since I've heard him in any. His soloists look less impressive, though he does seem to have massive choral forces arrayed (numbering over four hundred); then again, the Albert Hall requires more oomph - I've never been to a big choral concert in the Usher Hall and thought it was too quiet. I've waited ages to hear a Mahler 8, now suddenly you can't move for them. Only the other week Elder did it with the combined forces of the Halle and the BBC Philharmonic. Of course, if you want to see it, you can probably forget it, since it's already sold out, just as Edinburgh's Runnicles one is (though the Prom will be televised, along with 25 others).
The highlight of the Mahler, for me, is the second of Runnicles' two proms (Prom 24), where, with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, the women of the Festival Chorus (who by lucky coincidence, or, more likely, clever planning, are anyway preparing to sing it with the Concertgebouw) and Karen Cargill, he will perform the third symphony. This should be something else: it was a performance of this at the Edinburgh Festival in 2005 that first hooked me onto Runnicles, though whether the placement of the off-stage horn will be so magical in the Albert Hall we will have to wait and see; however, his skill for placing such things is second to none. As an added bonus, those who can't make it get a BBC4 broadcast. Gergiev, with the World Orchestra for Peace, is shoe-horning both 4 and 5 into one programme which provokes the response in me of: hmmmm. Partly that's because I find his Mahler too hard driven, but also because I think two Mahlers in one concert is a little much even for a fanatic like me.
Actually, though, neither Runnicles nor Mahler is the most exciting thing for me about this year's events. That honour lies with Paul Lewis. Regular readers will know how much I admire him and how good I think his Beethoven playing is. How excellent, therefore, that he will be playing all the concerti: Prom 6 gives us 1 and 4 with Bělohlávek and the BBCSO (the team with whom he has been recording them - the cynical might suggest the programming has been conceived to market the set), Prom 16 gives us number 2 with Nelsons and the CBSO, Prom 27 gives us number 3 with Elder and the Hallé, finally things end with the Emperor in Prom 69. Denève and the RSNO provide the support in this last (a nice warmup for the repeat performance in their 2010/11 season) along with some interludes from James MacMillan's The Sacrifice. Both the Nelsons and Elder proms look pretty attractive in their own rights, the former giving us Dvorak's 9th, the latter Ein Heldenleben. (Paul Lewis talks about the concerti in this video on the Guardian website.)
Roger Wright has delivered about the most massive knockout blow that one could imagine with his opening weekend. The first night's Mahler 8 is followed by a concert performance of Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg on the Saturday from WNO with Terfel singing Sachs (in theory - actually, in fairness to him, I can't remember him standing up the Proms). Then on Sunday it's the turn of Covent Garden and Simon Boccanegra (with a cast including Domingo and Ferruccio Furlanetto). This, too, is now sold out.
But back to the man himself. Proms audiences are treated to not one, but two gigs from Runnicles and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. The first, Prom 23, brings an all British programme including Foulds, Vaughan Williams and, best of all, Elgar's first symphony. I've heard an exert from a concert Runnicles gave in Dundee last year which was stunning, so if that's anything to go by it is a must hear. This is followed the next day by the above mentioned Mahler 3.
Scotland is well represented, with members of the SCO also making a visit not, as might be expected, under the baton of Robin Ticciati, but rather under that of Charles Mackerras for a late night concert including Dvořák's Serenade in D minor and Mozart's Gran Partita. Mackerras is also on hand for Prom 12, a programme that almost seems designed to show you you shouldn't expect him to be predictable as he approaches 85 - there is some Schumann, including the piano concerto with the wonderful Christian Zacharias, and a second half full of Strauss waltzes (neither are repertoire he is especially known for). Ticciati himself appears with the LPO for a concert performance, semi-staged, of Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel in Prom 61.
One interesting note is the scale of Jonathan Mills' coups for Edinburgh this year. His big name international ensembles: The Cleveland Orchestra, the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra and the Concertgebouw are not coming to the Proms; he has them exclusively. That is both surprising and a feather to his cap. In turn, Wright's biggest coup is two gigs from the Berliner Philharmoniker. While the programmes don't grab me quite so much as their visit slated for February, the first, Prom 65, looks set to be the most popular if not the most interesting (having already sold out), featuring Beethoven 4 and Mahler 1. It's notable mainly for the Mahler as I haven't been impressed by Rattle's Beethoven symphonies. In Prom 66, which will be televised, we get the prelude from Parsifal, Strauss's four last songs (with the superb Karita Mattila, who so impressed on her Edinburgh visit with the FRSO and Oramo) and then an assortment of sets of pieces from Schoenberg, Webern and Berg. Arguably it's the more interesting of the two, if less of a blockbuster, and may play more to Rattle's strengths.
The Minnesota Orchestra is on hand for two proms, including in Prom 57 the obligatory Beethoven 9th. Interestingly, there is no overlap at all with their Edinburgh programme.
Other items that jump out at me include Hilary Hahn (she of tweeting violin case fame), Paavo Järvi and the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen who bring an all Beethoven programme in Prom 14: symphonies 1 and 5 along with the violin concerto. I have a fondness for the orchestra following an exceptional 7th with Harding in 2003. Similarly, Knussen is always worth listening to, and in Prom 15 he and the BBC Symphony Orchestra provide a fascinating mix with, on the one hand, pieces by Stockhausen, Birtwistle and Matthews (the London premiere of his violin concerto), and on the other hand Schumann's Rhenish symphony. Fancy hearing some Wagner arranged for organ? If so, Prom 20 is your thing. Certainly it could be most interesting (Wayne Marshall is playing and the arrangements are by Lemare). Rattle's OAE Tristan could be interesting too: Urmana will be worth hearing as Isolde, but whether Heppner is up to Tristan is a more open question. Thomas Dausgaard, a conductor I have a lot of time for, brings the Danish National Symphony Orchestra for Prom 35 and a programme filled with Ligeti as well as Sibelius 5. Gardner and the English Baroque Soloists are doing all the Brandenburg concerti, but given they're in two concerts at the Cadogan Hall, availability is tight and I think I'm right in saying they're already sold out too.
Dausgaard is also back later on in Prom 51 with Nina Stemme and the Swedish Chamber Orchestra. Indeed, the Scandanavians are well represented, as Leif Ove Andsnes turns up in Prom 53 with the conductorless Norwegian Chamber Orchestra, a must see based on their visit to Glasgow last year.
Youth ensembles are well represented: Elder appears with the Australian Youth Orchestra, Colin Davis with the EUYO, in a programme including Janácek's Taras Bulba and Berlioz' Harold in Italy and, of course, the incomparable Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester appear with Blomstedt for a programme of Hindemith, Mahler songs and Bruckner 9 in Prom 62.
The chamber series contains little that grabs me, save for programme 7, which features Lars Vogt in a programme of Janacek's In the Mists and Schubert's D894 sonata.
There's a good bit of new music, with 31 premieres (though quite a lot of those are stretching things slightly by being merely the London premiere). The ratio of women is quite poor - just 4 of them. One would think the BBC could manage a little better. Where, for example, is the fabulous Helen Grime? Still, I'm very much looking forward to Tansy Davies' Wild Card (Prom 72), Brett Dean's Amphitheatre (Prom 18) and Arvo Pärt's 4th symphony (Prom 46).
This being the Proms, there are also the more popular things. I'm very much in favour of anything that brings a wider audience into a concert hall, and a few such events among the better part of a hundred serious concerts is hardly worth getting cross about if you don't like it. The popular Dr Who Prom is back, indeed, it is there twice, both on a Saturday evening in Prom 10 and on Sunday morning in Prom 11; mixed in with exerts from the show, there are also popular chunks from The Planets, Carmina burana and The Ride of the Valkyries, there's also a bit of John Adams too.
Interestingly, the specifically 'Children's Prom', with the Aurora Orchestra, looks much more interesting and adventurous in its programming, alongside bits from Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet and the Flight of the Bumblebee, we also get works by Adams and Shostakovich.
After lasts year's MGM prom there are more musicals, though whether an all Sondheim programme falls into quite the same category is another question. Personally, I think the man is a musical genius, but he isn't necessarily the most popular. Then again, the presence of Terfel and Simon Russell Beale should provide a draw.
As if one last night wasn't enough (or, for some, too much) we get a second the Sunday before, a recreation of the one from 1910. Paul Daniel conducts the BBC Concert Orchestra - he handled the speech pretty well when he last did it, but whether that will feature isn't clear. The presence of Steven Isserlis is, as ever, welcome, for an interesting new commission by Matthews, constructed out of fragments from Walton's cello concerto. It looks more appealing than the actual last night, for which Bělohlávek is on duty (his first?).
Of course, it strikes me that in terms of audience broadening and engagement, they haven't been really brave. Here's the thing: the last night, like it or not, is watched by a lot of people who probably wouldn't ordinarily tune into a classical concert. That's great. The problem is that there then isn't another televised concert the better part of a year (unless it's hidden away somewhere on BBC4). Why not reverse things, why not have the last first, then say, you liked this, why not try something else coming up in the next few weeks?
Lastly, for an organisation that often does so well with the web, the BBC's Proms pages remain rather unwieldy to navigate - Bachtrack allows you to find details much more quickly and is to be thoroughly recommended. It's also a shame that the articles and general stuff from the Proms paper guide don't make it online. Why? It's available as a CD, in braille (which is laudable) and on something called an audio cassette and a computer disk, yet not as a download. A stance that seems oddly dated.
Those are minor niggles, though. I, for one, eagerly await the better part of two months of live music every night.