Pick of the BBC Proms 2014

First published by Sinfini on 24 April, 2014

Week 1: Prom 6, July 22
Der Rosenkavalier
If the Proms belong to any one composer this year, it’s Richard Strauss. For his 150th anniversary the festival delves into his various musical guises, from the violent modernism of Elektra and Salome (see below) to the intimacy of his love songs (ditto) to the grand bravado of his orchestral showpieces. First up is is Strauss the whimsical romanticist: Glyndebourne trade bucolic Sussex for Kensington and import a semi-staged version of their new Der Rosenkavalier. The superb English soprano Kate Royal makes her role debut as the Marschallin and Glyndebourne’s new music director Robin Ticciati conducts the London Philharmonic Orchestra – he should draw the elegant, heartfelt best out of them.

Week 2: Prom 17, July 29 (late night)
Rameau’s grand motets
By no means all music, or indeed all performers, can cope with the gargantuan echo chamber that is the Royal Albert Hall, but the grand motets of Jean-Philippe Rameau should fill the space just fine. These works were written for the Chapel Royal of Louis XIV: think aching, ardent sacred drama on a scale where less is definitely not considered more. Few ensembles are better placed to summon Rameau’s sensuous, sumptuous scoring than Les Arts Florissants – in fact, when William Christie founded the French ensemble more than three decades ago he had exactly this repertoire in mind.

Week 3: Prom 28, August 7
Oedipus Rex
In the first half of this concert the brilliant Canadian violinist Leila Josefowicz plays a new violin concerto by Italian composer Luca Francesconi, a student of Berio and Stockhausen whose music bears traces of both but sounds intriguingly his own. After the interval it’s the stark, ritualistic tragedy of Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex: Latin solemnity, neo-baroque astringency and Verdian grandeur rolled into one monumental opera-oratorio. It’s quite the showcase for the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s new(ish) chief conductor Sakari Oramo, who also has his first-ever Last Night of the Proms to dread/look forward to.

Week 4: Prom 37, August 13 (late night)
Vintage Reich
It’s been nearly 50 years since Steve Reich was messing around with tapes of a Pentecostal street preacher and realised, almost by accident, that running two recordings slightly out of synch could produce a pretty hypnotic effect. The result was his 1965 breakthrough It’s Gonna Rain and the birth of phase music. Two decades later Reich expanded into minimalism on an altogether grander scale with The Desert Music, a plush 45-minute epic for chorus and orchestra. The BBC Singers and Endymion revive these two landmark works – ideal ambient stuff for the mellowness of a late-night Prom.

Week 5: Proms Chamber Music 5, August 18
Alice Coote and Julius Drake
Alice Coote sounds like no other mezzo-soprano. Her colour palette is beautifully unconventional, full of unique pockets of expression. Add to that her intelligent way with words – each one matters, none is overdone – plus her knack for conveying profound emotion without ever becoming sentimental, and this programme of tender early Strauss songs and Wolf’s darkly volatile Mörike and Goethe Lieder should make for fresh and vivid listening.

Week 6: Prom 53, August 26
Budapest Festival Orchestra
Take nothing for granted when it comes to Ivan Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra. OK, so the orchestral sound will be magnificent and the playing will be brilliantly alert. But when it comes to interpretation, there’s no knowing where Fischer and his extraordinary band will take Brahms’s third and fourth symphonies. This is the conductor who plucks individual players from the back of the orchestra and plonks them at the front of the stage (usually to highlight some hitherto unappreciated inner line) and who painstakingly tunes each section from the podium to achieve total cohesion through the whole ensemble. Whatever his weird and wonderful tricks, he gets staggeringly good results. Be warned: hearing the BFO in action tends to reduce even the most hardened listener to a giddy, enthusiastic mess.

Week 7: Prom 58, August 30
No holds barred as the full might of Berlin’s Deutsche Oper and their music director Donald Runnicles take on the blood-drenched eroticism of Richard Strauss’s Salome. Swedish soprano Nina Stemme plays the crazed necrophiliac title role; her vocal clout and theatrical gravitas should be nothing short of mesmerising. John the Baptist (played by the young South Korean bass-baritone Samuel Youn) will need piety of steel to resist her.

Week 8: Prom 66, September 6
St Matthew Passion
Simon Rattle has described it as the “single most important thing we ever did” at Berlin’s Philharmonie; here’s your chance to see that much-hyped Peter Sellars staging (or ‘ritualization’, as Sellars calls it) of Bach’s St Matthew Passion for the first time in the UK. Come to it with open eyes and ears: Bach never wrote an opera but he knew a thing or two about music drama, and the Passion is as theatrical a canvas as any baroque opera. And while the Berlin Philharmonic isn’t exactly a lithe period band, its sheer gorgeous bulk should make for a rare opportunity to really wallow in this score. There’s also serious star-factor in the vocal line-up, with mezzo Magdalena Kozena, tenors Topi Lehtipuu and Eric Owens, baritone Christian Gerhaher and Mark Padmore as the Evangelist.

Week 8: Prom 70, September 8 (late-night)
Max’s birthday concert
This late-night concert marks the 80th birthday of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies by surveying his orchestral music and reuniting him with the ensemble that probably knows him best. Back in the 1980s the composer wrote a set of ten Strathclyde Concertos for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra; here they return to the expansive, effervescent Fourth with clarinettist Dimitri Ashkenazy. The concert closes with one of Max’s most popular orchestral gems – An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise – and opens with a recent score, Ebb of Winter, written last year during an eerie calm period in the usually ferocious Orkney winter.

Week 9: Prom 75, September 12
Beethoven’s Ninth
Whatever you make of all the pomp and flag-waving of the official Last Night, there isn’t much that can detract from the hope and humanity of this, er, penultimate night of the Proms. It’s a festival tradition to perform Beethoven’s Ninth at least once each summer; Riccardo Chailly takes up the baton this year with the illustrious Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. Cue expensive-sounding strings, wholesome woodwinds and hefty, glowing brass – this is the kind of big-boned, rousing orchestral playing that the Royal Albert Hall and the Proms were made for.