Plenty of pianists play Beethoven, but it’s rare to find one who does so with the insight, imagination and intelligence of Igor Levit. The Russian-German pianist made his BBC Proms debut five years ago, and chose late Beethoven sonatas for his staggering debut disc. It should be a real treat to hear him join the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Edward Gardner for Beethoven’s Third Concerto, in C minor. Add to that John Adams’s pulsating and luminous choral-orchestral Harmonium – the first of several pieces to mark the US composer’s 70th Birthday – and a premiere by Tom Coult, and this looks set to be a memorable First Night.
The ever-inventive Aurora Orchestra girds its loins to perform Beethoven’s politically charged Eroica Symphony from memory, with the hope that the feat will result in a fresher, more involved performance. It’s preceded by Richard Strauss’s 1945 Metamorphosen, in which the German composer expresses his grief for his broken homeland and, by quoting from the Eroica, pays homage to its musical golden age. But what sets this concert apart is what lies between – in the company of Radio 3’s Tom Service, the Aurora conductor Nicholas Collon will be breaking down Beethoven’s masterpiece for the audience, with live excerpts to illustrate their points. Listen and learn, as they say.
It’s always worth making a space in your diary for the traditional annual Proms performance of Beethoven’s Ninth, the composer’s brilliant final symphony which takes the listener on a journey from elemental chaos to uplifting joy. This year it’s paired with a work that also celebrates humanity, in particular the ‘spiritual, moral and artistic patrimony’ of Europe. James MacMillan’s 2015 A European Requiem sets Latin texts and takes its inspiration from the 19th-century Requiem tradition. Doing the honours for both pieces will be the CBSO Chorus, and the BBC National Chorus and Orchestra of Wales, conducted by Xian Zhang.
Here’s a rare chance to hear Prokofiev’s disquieting cantata Seven, They Are Seven. Composed in 1917, the year of the Russian Revolution itself (see p31), the work was based on an ancient Mesopotamian text that describes seven demonic gods who have power over the elements and is believed to have been intended by Prokofiev as an allegory for the chaos of dramatic regime change. Divine wrath, meanwhile, also crashes down on Mesopotamia in Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast. Under its vibrant chief conductor Kirill Karabits, the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra – joined here by the National Youth Choir of Great Britain – will doubtless lead the riot with typical gusto.
Known and admired for its exploration and expansion of music’s boundaries, the six-piece Bang on a Can All-Stars has been invited to celebrate its 30th anniversary in a Late Night Prom that features music by the ensemble’s three composer-directors, Michael Gordon, David Lang and Julia Wolfe – Gordon’s Big Space will, in fact, be a world premiere. This BBC Prom is not solely about the All-Stars, however. Joining them for the evening will be the BBC Proms Youth Ensemble and conductor Rumon Gamba, while works by composers Philip Glass – who celebrates his 80th birthday this year – and Louis Andriessen round off the occasion.
JS Bach’s Orgelbüchlein is a collection of 46 brief chorale preludes for organ, each one written for a specific liturgical feast. However, for reasons not entirely clear, Bach left it incomplete, falling way short of his intended target of 164 pieces. Cue organist William Whitehead, who has been busy over the past few years plugging the 118 gaps with newly composed pieces by Roderick Williams, Gabriel Jackson, David Briggs, Eriks Esenvalds, Judith Bingham and more besides. In one of three Proms in a day celebrating the Reformation, Whitehead himself and fellow organist Robert Quinney will premiere three of the more recent commissions, by Cheryl Frances-Hoad, Jonathan Dove and Daniel Saleeb.
A look through this year’s Proms jazz highlights reveals that, as well as the centenary celebration of Ella Fitzgerald and Dizzy Gillespie, there’s a tribute to one of the fiercest jazz talents of all time, Charles Mingus. A huge success at last year’s Proms, conductor Jules Buckley and the Metropole Orkest return to explore Mingus’s greatest compositions, not least the iconic 1959 album Mingus Ah Um. As a bandleader, Mingus drew on his classical training as a double-bassist, harnessing the energy of big band-era swing with the riotous spontaneity of Gospel. Buckley is joined by saxist Shabaka Hutchings.
As the BBC Proms season enters its last couple of weeks is when big-name orchestras from abroad are traditionally seen filing into the Royal Albert Hall artists’ entrance. This year, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra – which, coincidentally, was founded in the same year as the Proms themselves – enjoys that privilege for the first time in their 122-year histories. For the occasion, the ensemble and its music director Louis Langrée are bringing a couple of works from across the pond, namely Bernstein’s On the Waterfront symphonic suite and Copland’s Lincoln Portrait, which features the speeches of a US presidential great. Tchaikovsky’s Fifth rounds off this long overdue Proms debut.
The UK’s first black and minority ethnic orchestra, Chineke! has been making waves in performances across the UK, and is the youngest ever ensemble to be invited to the BBC Proms. Its programme includes a world premiere of The Spark Catchers by rising star Hannah Kendall, based on a poem by Lemn Sissay, and Lyric for Strings by George Walker, whose 1996 work Lilacs made him the first African-American composer to win a Pulizter Prize. Cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason (BBC Young Musician 2016) also makes his Proms debut in works by Dvoπák and Popper.
Featuring Mahler’s Sixth Symphony – complete with hammer blow – in one, and pianist Emanuel Ax in another, one might observe that there is something notably striking about the Vienna Philharmonic’s two Proms. Puns aside, these two concerts at the end of the season will be worth the wait. The Mahlerian first will be conducted by Daniel Harding, while the second, in which Ax will be performing Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 14, will be under the baton of Michael Tilson Thomas. Either side of the Mozart will be Brahms’s Variations on the St Anthony Chorale and the fizzing, manic energy of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7. What better way to tee up the following day’s Last Night of the Proms?