In case anyone hasn’t noticed, it’s Olympic and Jubilee year, and the 2012 BBC Proms opens with an unashamedly patriotic programme: English music sung by top British singers (with one Canadian interloper in the shape of Gerald Finley) with the baton relayed between a quartet of our top conductors. The following day sees a semi-staged performance of that most English-themed (albeit US-written) of musicals, Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady.
The patriotic stuff then goes into reverse as we cross the channel to France for the first of many operatic highlights: Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, with Sir John Eliot Gardiner and his Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique; Alice Coote and Julius Drake then kick off the Cadogan Hall chamber programme with an all-French song recital. The patriotism returns on Olympic opening day (August 5th) with a suitably commissioned Olympic fanfare by James MacMillan.
This year’s line up bears close inspection. When you see it first, the programme looks distinctly short of the usual parade of top-rated visiting orchestras, which only starts on the 30th of August with Simon Rattle and the Berlin Phil (followed by a couple of performances each from the Gewandhaus (under Chailly) and the Vienna Phil (under an evergreen Bernard Haitink). But look closely at any particular area of classical music and you’ll see a plethora of interesting items.
For lovers of the symphony, the highlight is a complete Beethoven cycle performed by Daniel Barenboim and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. Four concerts present two symphonies each, in each case interleaved with a work by Pierre Boulez: these should highlight the avant-garde nature (for his day) of Beethoven’s work. The cycle culminates on 27th July with the ninth, featuring an all-star cast of singers. Symphony lovers also get a choice of Sibelius, Dvořák, Tchaikovsky, Mahler, Bruckner, Mendelssohn, Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Lutoslawski, as well as Messiaen’s giant Turangalîla-symphonie. August 23rd has an interesting programme of Shostakovich’s 10th together with a new symphony by Peter Maxwell Davies. The Vienna Philharmonic’s two concerts should be highlights of the season, featuring Bruckner 9 paired with Beethoven’s fourth piano concerto, and Richard Strauss’s Alpine Symphony paired with Haydn’s “London” Symphony no. 104.
There are five massive choral works from every part of the repertoire. The OAE and Laurence Cummings start things off with Handel’s oratorio Judas Maccabaeus; The English Concert perform Bach’s B minor Mass; Bernstein’s Mass is a peculiarly American concoction of music from all sorts of styles; the BBC National Orchestra and Chorus of Wales perform Berlioz’s Grande Messe des Morts. Lastly, on 12th August, there’s Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder, with the BBC Symphony Chorus augmented by Crouch End Festival Chorus, the New London Chamber Choir and a group of soloists headed by the highly rated Angela Denoke.
20th - 21st century
Gurrelieder is just one of many treats for lovers of music of the twentieth century and later. You can also hear Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire played by the Nash Ensemble, Oliver Knussen’s second and third symphonies, or the Britten Sinfonia playing several premières. The London Sinfonietta plays Ligeti, Berio and others, Prom 47 with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra is entirely devoted to the work of John Cage, and Prom 62 is mainly devoted to Eric Whitacre.
Early music As usual, the other end of the historical timeline is best catered for at Cadogan Hall, with crack ensembles like the Academy of Ancient Music (Bach’s Art of Fugue), Tenebrae (Orlando Gibbons and others), Le Concert Spirituel (Handel) and two particularly intriguing programmes: one by Les 24 Violons du Roi of music from the Château de Versailles, and one of tarantella music by Christina Paluhar’s marvellous group L’Arpeggiata. In the main hall, if you fancy some early music late at night, try Prom 53, with I Fagiolini performing Monteverdi and others.
Opera and ballet
Opera lovers get a concert or semi-staged performance from each of our top companies: the Royal Opera’s Les Troyens, ENO’s Peter Grimes (starring the excellent heldentenor Stuart Skelton) and Glyndebourne’s Marriage of Figaro. Operetta aficionados can go to a performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Yeoman of the Guard, and lovers of ballet music also get the LSO and Gergiev playing Prokofiev’s full music for Cinderella.
Finally, there’s the usual group of not-quite-classical events. Martin Taylor’s Spirit of Django stands out amongst the jazz gigs, there’s a Broadway Prom, a Prom devoted to the works of Ivor Novello, a Latin American accordion Prom or, for something completely different, you can go to Staff Benda Bilili, a group of paraplegic street musicians from the Democratic Republic of Congo.
It’s an intriguing season with something for everyone. My impression is that it’s shorter on the usual mainstream repertoire than previous years, but top-of-class within each speciality: hopefully, this will tempt prommers into going to see some fresh material outside the musical landscapes they usually inhabit. See the whole programme on One Stop Arts, and when the season has started, we'll be publishing reviews of many of the concerts.