The BBC have announced their 2013 Proms season and while it is not perfect it still serves as a reminder of why the BBC offers good value to those of us who are fans of classical music in providing this unique festival. This is true even though it's been some years since I made it to the Albert Hall (not least as in many regards it can be argued that the best seat to listen from is actually your own sofa, especially now that Radio 3 is at 320 AAC online). I do find it puzzling that if you want an easy way to scan through all the concerts this is to be found via Bachtrack's clearly laid out site, which is much more user-friendly than the BBC's own if you want to look at the whole season rather than a specific Prom.
For me one of the expected highlights is the arrival of Sakari Oramo as the BBC Symphony Orchestra's new chief conductor. As I said when first proposing him for the post after a stunning debut concert, one of his potential strengths is that he is adept in both British music and new music. We shall see, hopefully, both of those traits in the first night, when he gives us a world premiere by Julian Anderson, Britten's Sea Interludes and Vaughan Williams' A Sea Symphony. I am particularly looking forward to the latter which is a favourite of mine and which I expect Oramo will ensure is suitably dramatic.
It is perhaps a slight shame that we will only see him twice this season, but hopefully that will expand in future years. His other programme mixes the world premiere of Param Vir's intriguingly titled Cave of Luminous Mind with Sibelius's violin concerto, Bantock's Celtic Symphony and Elgar's Enigma Variations. Oramo's Elgar was one of the many highlights of his decade in Birmingham, as evidenced by his recording with the CBSO of both Enigma and Gerontius. Similarly his recent Stockholm account of the second symphony. These are interpretations that are both powerful and feel fresh.
This second concert comes the day after a planned LSO programme of Tippett (including the magnificent concerto for double string orchestra) and Sibelius's second symphony. Alas, this was to have been conducted by Colin Davis, who died earlier this month and who was a noted specialist in both composers. Personally I would have asked Oramo to take the reins since he's an excellent Sibelian, a dab hand with many an English composer and in town. Arguably more appropriately the task will fall to the orchestra's principal guest conductor Daniel Harding. The Sibelius has been changed for Elgar's second. True, this may be more suitably "elegiac", as the Proms website puts it, but for me Davis's contribution to Sibelius was more important than to Elgar, and as such I think the original programme would have made a more fitting tribute.
Francios-Xavier Roth and his Orchestre Les Siecles have impressed me greatly in recordings I have heard (primarily French repertoire) so I would expect them to deliver a thrilling account of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring in Prom 4.
A centerpiece of the Proms programme is its celebration of Wagner's anniversary, though in my view they have gone overboard on this, presenting us with most of his major operas. The centrepiece is a Ring cycle. Billed as the first time it has been staged in a season, it should perhaps be noted that they have already done one cycle within the last decade, albeit with different forces, spread over four years (culminating with a superb Gotterdammerung from Runnicles and the BBCSO in 2007).
This time round we get Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin. At least, one hopes we do: it must be noted that Barenboim has recently had to withdraw from a number of performances for health reasons. We wish him a speedy recovery. Highlights of the cast should include Nina Stemme's Brunnhilde and Eric Halfvarson's Fafner and Hunding. It's worth noting that despite staging the opera over a single week we still don't get consistent casting, for example Terfel is Wotan in Walkure but not elsewhere (indeed, three different singers take the part). Terfel was confirmed late, not appearing in the printed brochure, so perhaps they had hoped to get him for the entire run. All that said, the cycle doesn't make it to my unmissable list. I do have a soft spot for Barenboim's cycle because I won a copy of it some years ago (when Radio 3 broadcast it in one day) and it's about the only significant thing I've ever won. However, while I admire Barenboim greatly as an artist, and have heard exceptional performances from him both live and on disc, his Wagner generally doesn't do much for me. There's nothing seriously wrong with his readings, but I find they lack that extra magical sparkle that marks out the greatest interpretations.
As if a Ring cycle in a week isn't enough Wagner to be getting on with, sandwiched between Siegfried and Gotterdammerung we find Tristan. This comes from the BBC SO under Bychkov, a sure Wagnerian hand. This should be worth hearing for his involvement alone but I am also keen to hear Violeta Urmana as Isolde and Boaz Daniel is a good Kurwenal (as evidenced on the Runnicles recording, also made with the BBC SO).
On top of that, a week or so later Runnicles himself arrives with the BBC SSO to do Tannhauser. This team have had good results with Wagner, both in the recent Tristan spread over the current season and in one of their earliest collaborations, a 2003 concert performance of Lohengrin at the Edinburgh festival. Runnicles is for my money one of the finest Wagner conductors available. Better yet, he is bringing over the superb Deutsche Oper chorus, who should add a wonderful weight to the event.
Finally, and for me least excitingly, Mark Elder and the Halle bring Parsifal. While I'm a big fan of this conductor / orchestra combination and their recordings of Ring operas have won acclaim, I have found those discs rather dull owing to what for me is Elder's leaden pace which does not seem to have the accompanying magic that the likes of Hans Knappertsbusch would bring.
Well, I say finally but you can also find a few overtures for good measure. You could be forgiven for thinking it was Bayreuth, not the Albert Hall. For me, the Proms seem to be doing their best to prove that you can have too much of a good thing. It's a shame we couldn't have had a few less and a little more Britten and Verdi instead. What about Britten's rarely performed and tricky to stage Paul Bunyan, a good candidate for a concert performance if ever there was one? Or, and here's a radical suggestion, some opera not linked to an anniversary but just programmed because it's good and worth doing.
It's good to see the Mahler Chamber Orchestra making a visit. They are one of the finest Chamber Orchestras in the world and they impressed me greatly when I heard them at Aldeburgh a few years ago. Daniel Harding conducts a programme including Schumann 2, Sibelius 7 and Mozart's 25th piano concerto with the superb Paul Lewis.
On a slightly different note, Nicholas Collon and his no less impressive Aurora Orchestra will present a programme later that same evening including works by Zappa, Nancarrow and Glass. While not strictly speaking a case of two for the price of one, this is certainly a case of getting a great chance to catch two excellent ensembles on one visit to the Albert Hall. That said, I would have liked to see their excellent Britten GPO films programme given a wider airing via the proms, though I realise that contradicts my dislike of anniversary programming.
Aside from the BBC Scottish, we haven't seen one of Scotland's main orchestras at the Proms since 2010. It is therefore good to see both the SCO and the RSNO invited this year (though in my view they should be invited a little more frequently than once every three years). Both come with their chief conductors so I will be particularly interested to see what the London critics make of Peter Oundjian and his programme including Tchaikovsky 5 and a premiere by Sohal. Ticciati and the SCO bring the Erioca, an arrangement of part of the Art of Fugue and Mendelssohn's 1st piano concerto with Stephen Hough.
The BBC SSO, aside from Tannhauser with Runnicles, present an interesting programme with Matthias Pinscher which includes his own concerto for two trumpets, one of whom will be the excellent Tine Thing Helseth, along with Stravinsky's Firebird. Under Runnilces they also bring Beethoven 5 and MacMillan's violin concerto.
The visit by Jansons and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra ought to be one of the highlights. They impressed me so greatly when I first heard them at the 2007 Edinburgh festival that I travelled to London for a series of appearances they made at the Festival Hall over the following years (with programmes including Bruckner, Shostakovich, Strauss and Mahler). For my money, this is one of the very best conductor / orchestra teams in the world and is absolutely not to be missed. Jansons is no slouch in Mahler 2 either, one of the works they're bringing, as he proved with the Concertgebouw at the Barbican a few years ago, rivalling the man himself for offstage brass placement. Be warned, he will almost certainly observe the five minute break Mahler marks in the score between the first and second movements (not a decision I agree with, and one which last time prompted me to fear seriously for his health). Their programmes are more or less identical to the ones they are presenting in Edinburgh a few days later. The main difference is that the Prommers get the Symphonie Fantastique in place of Tchaikovsky 6. It will be interesting to see who has the better deal. In both cases they are accompanied by the sublime Mitsuko Uchida who will perform Beethoven's 4th concerto, one which she ought to be particularly well suited to. A previous collaboration in the 3rd was a great success.
The Royal Albert Hall organ doesn't seem to have been as well utilised as in some recent seasons, though Saint-Saens' 3rd symphony from Paavo Jarvi and the Orchestra de Paris should be a lot of fun (if it is a slight shame that we are not getting this from Roth and Les Siecles).
For me, the last few weeks of programming have less that jumps out. This is no bad thing since Edinburgh will be keeping me more than busy enough. Bavarians aside, there are not too many other top name orchestras. We do get the men of the Vienna Philharmonic with Bach and Bruckner under Lorin Maazel, but I do not find this in any way an attractive prospect.
To much fanfare, Marin Alsop will conduct the last night. While it is great to see a woman in this role, I find my cheers muted by the fact I find it profoundly depressing that in 2013 this can still be a first. Surely this should have happened for the first time decades ago. Still, I enjoy Alsop's work and have done ever since I heard a very impressive Mahler 7 from her and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra the better part of a decade ago. As a programme it doesn't hugely appeal to me, though the last night never really does.
Elsewhere the Dr Who Prom returns (in my view an excellent thing, and a lot of fun). However, I find it infuriating that once again such a theatrical event it is not being televised live. Yes, it's being recorded for later broadcast, but the Proms is ultimately a festival of live music and listening along on the radio just isn't the same. It is an especially odd decision since this sort of Prom is the kind that might be able to lure people in to take a look at the rest of the season.
A couple of the more adventurous proms have attracted real ire in some quarters. These include the Urban Classical Prom and the 6 Music Prom. To be honest, from the material available, it is impossible to tell whether they will be any good. When done well, fusion can be fantastic and I am all in favour of it. One of my great musical heroes, Miles Davis, was one of the finest exponents of bringing together disperate styles and forging something great out of them. We shall have to wait and see, though I have no objection to the festival wandering off the beaten track for one or two proms a year, indeed I think it is very healthy.
Less adventurous is the return of John Wilson, who has previously celebrated British film music, MGM musicals and Rodgers and Hammerstein at the proms. This year we get the Hollywood Rhapsody Prom.
There are few things which catch my eye on the chamber music side of things. Vilda Frang has impressed me in appearances with the BBC Scottish with the sheer energy she brings to the performance. As such, her programme of Ravel, Mozart and Lutoslawski should be worth hearing.
I'm also looking forward to Tine Thing Helseth and her ten piece brass ensemble TenThing's programme of Grieg and Bizet.
Last but not least, there is also a late night Prom with Paul Lewis and Imogen Cooper playing Schubert (which rather astonishingly seems to be the composer's only appearance this season).
All in all, it feels a good season with plenty I want to hear. And I'm actually rather grateful that the things I'm most interested in are front loaded and so there shouldn't be too many clashes with the Edinburgh festival in August.
That said, for future seasons, and this goes for everyone not just the Proms (though they seem particularly vulnerable to it), let's call an end to anniversary programming. It's a little lazy and leads to overabundances followed by shortages (well, that's not entirely true, I'm not expecting a dearth of Wagner any time soon). Let's celebrate a composer because they're good, or under played, and instead of chosing the composers that happen to share a round numbered anniversary, let's choose composers who complement them in an interesting manner. That's probably harder to do, but in my view the rewards are commensurate with the effort.