The Proms has come a long way from its humble beginnings in 1895. Since the BBC’s involvement in 1927, the festival has continued to expand both in scope and in international attention. This is of course reflected in the continually ridiculous (but entertaining) last night of the Proms; and this year, also in the excitement of the first. Opening with a commission from contemporary female composer Judith Weir and ending with Leoš JanáÄek’s Glagolitic Mass (performed by the BBC singers), the night encompassed an astonishing variety of musical styles and nationalities, and provided a platform for contemporary composition that is much needed in the current musical climate. Sandwiched between the two was Liszt’s Second Piano Concerto, performed by Benjamin Grosvenor. Having burst onto the public music scene with his performance in the BBC Young Musician competition seven years prior, Grosvenor was the youngest artist ever to open the Proms. He’s proving to be quite an artist to watch, and his concerto performance was measured and pleasing, if not breathtaking. His encore was a slight letdown, but it was a comfortable Proms debut. The highlight of the evening, however, was the Glagolitic Mass. Sadly under-performed, the mass was given a superb rendition. On a similar note of under-performed brilliance, the critical acclaim for Stephen Hough’s recordings of the Saint-Saens piano concertos proved correct in Prom 23 with his performance of the fifth ‘Egyptian’ concerto, often neglected for the more popular second. Coupled with Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony and Liszt’s Dante Symphony, the first Prom was an exceptional concert.
Other highlights in the season have included Mark Elder and the Halle Orchestra performing Sibelius, Bartók and JanáÄek; Oliver Knussen and the BBC Symphony Orchestra (the Berg with soloist Claire Booth a particular stand-out performance); the Human Planet Prom; and the Horrible Histories Prom (narrated by historical characters in the Horrible Histories series). The season’s best Prom, however, was surely the 29th: Gustavo Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela performing Mahler’s Second Symphony. The Prom once again showcased the international brilliance of this astounding youth orchestra, proving that classical music is still young, current and political. It was a joy to watch.
The slight disappointments and the quite frankly bizarre were Proms 4 & 32, and Proms 24 & 25, respectively. Prom 4 offered us Havergal Brian’s ‘Gothic’ Symphony. Over 1000 performers played on an extended stage in this rendition of Brian’s First Symphony. The brass band were suitably bombastic, the singers phenomenal, but there may be a reason other than sheer numbers why this symphony – the largest ever composed – is so rarely performed, and it certainly did not inspire me to explore Brian’s other 31 symphonic offerings. Prom 32, Brahms Violin Concerto and Mahler’s Das klagende Lied appeared promising, but in the event was sadly lacklustre. Christian Tetzlaff perspired his way to triumph in the Brahms but the performance was somewhat unconvincing, lacking the effortless flow that the cantata requires. His encore, conversely, was inspired. Simple and confident, it appeared he had suddenly shed his nerves. Tenor Stuart Skelton and the BBC Singers stole the show in the Mahler, salvaging a fairly uninspired performance by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Edward Gardner.
Proms 24 & 25 were dedicated to the memory of Percy Grainger, described as ‘one of music’s great originals’. A brilliant pianist, sexual deviant, musical inventor, decided racist, and perennial eccentric, Grainger was one of classical music’s most fascinating characters. The museum dedicated to him in Melbourne contains collections of his erotic photographs (including his love of flagellism) and sexual implements alongside his ethnographic material and musical collections. The Proms were worth a listen, but it was a shame they didn’t programme his Suite on Danish Folksongs which Grainger performed himself at the Proms in 1948.
Proms to watch:
Prom 48, August 19th: Brahms and Schumann, mainly for the Schoenberg transcription of the Brahms. All to be performed by the sensational pianist Angela Hewitt.
Prom 51, August 22nd: An unusual programme; the new Volans Piano Concerto is set alongside Wagner, Liszt and Brahms under Jiri Belohlavek and the BBC Symphony Orchestra.
Prom 55, August 25th: Rinaldo by the Glyndebourne Festival Opera. Almost as old as the Proms itself, Glyndebourne was founded in 1934 amidst the turmoil of Hitler’s rise to power. Originally performing Mozart operas under Fritz Busch and Carl Ebert (who had fled Germany under Nazi rule), the opera company has since largely expanded, here presenting Handel’s Rinaldo with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.
Prom 56, August 26th: Semyon Bychkov and the BBC Symphony Orchestra perform Strauss’ Burleske and Mahler’s Sixth Symphony. Bychkov conducted the Verdi Requiem superbly at the beginning of this Proms season.
Prom 58, August 28th: Mendelssohn’s Elijah. This expansive oratorio is performed by Paul McCreesh and no fewer than five choirs.
Prom 60, August 30th: Mozart Piano Concerto No. 25 and Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony. The soloist for the Mozart is David Fray, an upcoming French pianist who performs with refreshing clarity and if nothing else is extremely compelling to watch.
Prom 61, August 31st: world premiere of Graham Fitkin’s Cello Concerto, and Beethoven Symphony No. 9. With Yo-Yo Ma as soloist for the Fitkin, this should no doubt be an excellent concert.
Prom 64, September 2nd: Create your own Prom with the Budapest Festival Orchestra. This is probably a better Prom to attend than to tune in to on Radio 3, but the element of audience participation should be entertaining.
Prom 67, September 4th: Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, conducted by Colin Davis.
Prom 74: The Last Night of the Proms. This year Lang Lang is the headline act for the Last Night, performing Liszt’s First Piano Concerto as companion to Grosvenor’s performance of the Second Concerto on the First Night. Lang Lang’s rise to fame has been meteoric, and he has since become one of the best known names in classical music. Whether or not you like his interpretations are to your taste, he makes people want to watch him, and his performance here should sit well alongside the fireworks and festivities of the final night. The finale will include the obligatory ‘Land of Hope and Glory’, ‘Jerusalem’, ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, ‘Rule Britannia’. and the National Anthem. At least there’ll be Maxwell-Davies at the start to balance the night.