The Guardian's critics will be reviewing every Prom this year. We asked them to pick the one to see, the one to miss and the one that should have been programmed
One thing I've always liked about the Proms is how generous it is towards the disorganised London music lover. One can wander up to the Albert Hall on the day, hand over a few quid and hear, say, Placido Domingo as Simon Boccanegra (Prom 3). Or Bryn Terfel as Hans Sachs (Prom 2). Or, perhaps, the best orchestra in the world.
Is that orchestra Simon Rattle's Berlin Philharmonic (Proms 64 and 66)? I don't know, but its two appearances this year, taking in some essential Teutonic composers, will offer great material for arguing the point either way. The first concert, pairing Beethoven and Mahler, is more obviously a showcase programme, but I'm excited about the second, which juxtaposes rich Wagner and Strauss with the sparseness of miniatures by Schoenberg, Webern and Berg. If Rattle and the orchestra can bring those later works off, the effect of an audience of thousands holding its collective breath through the silences should be unforgettable.
The next afternoon's concert is also based around miniatures: the Proms is exhuming more or less exactly what was played on the Last Night in 1910, and it looks as though half of the afternoon will be spent just rearranging the stage between numbers. Perhaps the whole thing will turn out to be a fascinating insight into the minds of concertgoers a century ago. But if the Last Night in 1910 bore as much relation to the rest of the season as the Last Night does now, it will tell us precisely nothing, and this is the Prom I certainly hope to avoid.
I thought long and hard about a fantasy Prom before realising that what I would most want to hear is Claudio Abbado conduct Mahler. But if I could rescue a composer who is otherwise missing this year, it would be Charles Ives, whose music always makes me smile.
Experimental music from either side of the Atlantic has never been heard much at the Proms, where contemporary music generally has a harder, more determinist edge. But my pick of this year's Proms sees Ilan Volkov return to the orchestra where he was such an innovative chief conductor until last year with a late-night programme devoted to some of those rarely performed pieces (Prom 47). The American tradition is represented by John Cage's First Construction in Metal and the UK premiere of Morton Feldman's Piano and Orchestra, the British strand by Cornelius Cardew's Bun No 1 and Howard Skempton's Lento.
Beethoven nights used to be a Proms tradition, but one that outlived its relevance and was quietly abandoned several decades ago. Yet for some reason, they've been revived this year, not once but twice. There's Prom 6 with Jiri Belohlavek conducting and Paul Lewis beginning his cycle of the piano concertos with the first and the fourth, and another (Prom 14) featuring the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie under Paavo Järvi in two of the symphonies, the first and fifth, with Hilary Hahn playing the violin concerto. If there's one composer who hardly needs that kind of blanket coverage, it's surely Beethoven.
Performances of Mahler symphonies, meanwhile, will proliferate over the next 12 months, with the centenary of the composer's death immediately following this year's 150th anniversary of his birth. The various performing versions of the unfinished Tenth Symphony will doubtless be paraded, reopening the debate over which is the most convincing. So what about a mammoth concert that includes performances of all the candidates? I'd put money on Deryck Cooke's version coming out on top, but it would be good to compare and contrast it with those by Clinton Carpenter, Joe Wheeler, Rudolf Barshai, Samale and Mazzuca, and most recently, by Yoel Gamzou, once at least.
This year's first night (Prom 1) stands out as a classic Prom opportunity for the BBC Symphony Orchestra and its chief conductor to make their mark. With its massive choral and orchestral forces and its big spatial requirements, Mahler's Eighth Symphony is the kind of piece that one should only listen to live and in the right surroundings. The Albert Hall might have been designed for the express purpose of mounting performances of this work. I will be looking for Jiri Belohlavek to add his name to those of Colin Davis, Lorin Maazel, Pierre Boulez, Simon Rattle and, above all, Leonard Bernstein, who have all given memorable performances of this vast piece in this even vaster hall.
Normally – see above – I'm a willing captive in a Mahler concert, but the idea of listening to two Mahler symphonies in a single evening strikes me as completely gross. Yet for some reason, that's what the indefatigable Valery Gergiev and his World Orchestra for Peace have decided to programme for their visit (Prom 26). Even with the more modestly conceived Fourth Symphony paired alongside the far more histrionic Fifth, this has all the hallmarks of an indigestible evening – and a bit of a waste of a versatile soprano such as Camilla Tilling. Having listened to much of Gergiev's unremitting approach to Mahler in his cycle with the London Symphony Orchestra a few years ago, this looks a good candidate for an evening off.
The Proms are not just for mainstream repertoire but for obscurities, too. So, although the theme would have to be handled with sensitivity, how about a concert of important orchestral works by three very different composers who continued to work and live in Germany during the Third Reich? It could start with Richard Strauss's Metamorphosen for 23 string players, and continue with Karl Amadeus Hartmann's Concerto Funebre, with Thomas Zehetmair as soloist. After the interval, a rare performance of Wilhelm Furtwängler's Second Symphony to conclude the evening. Ideally, the works would be performed by the Berlin Philharmonic itself, on this occasion (because he is a fierce advocate of the Furtwängler symphony) under the baton of Daniel Barenboim.
Ingo Metzmacher is one of today's finest interpreters of the early 20th-century Austro-German repertoire, so I'm curious to see what he and his Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin do with Mahler's Seventh Symphony (Prom 34), a piece from which some conductors have shied away. Among the most beautiful of the composer's works, it's also widely regarded as among the most enigmatic, controversial and difficult of symphonies to perform. It comes with the nocturne from Franz Schreker's very sexy opera Der Ferne Klang and the Korngold Violin Concerto, with the great Leonidas Kavakos as soloist.
I confess, meanwhile, to an almost pathological aversion to organ recitals, which is no disrespect to Wayne Marshall, whose musicianship I hugely admire. I'm just not sure that I could cope with his afternoon (Prom 20) of Wagner transcriptions, and can't really imagine that chunks of Tannhäuser, Tristan und Isolde and Die Walküre would work on the Albert Hall organ. I am, I realise, more of a Wagner purist than I thought.
The Pergolesi tercentenary, meanwhile, has been poorly served in the UK. Prom 64 features the Stabat Mater, his most popular work, alongside music by Arne and WF Bach, performed by Christian Curnyn and the Early Opera Company. The problem is that while the Stabat Mater is becoming ubiquitous, the rest of Pergolesi isn't getting much of an airing. His Saint Emidius Mass, written in Naples in 1732 to implore the city's patron saint's protection during a series of earthquakes, is, as Claudio Abbado's recent recording proved, one of the most startling and challenging of 18th-century choral works. I would like to have seen it scheduled somewhere, too.
The Proms begin on 16 July. Details: bbc.co.uk/proms
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