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2013 Proms preview: From Britten to Bear Hunt, it’s the sound of summer

Never mind the operatic overkill, says Michael Church, the Proms season promises musical treats for all tastes at the Albert Hall

With booking under way, the good news for the BBC is that some Proms are virtually sold out. The good news for everyone else is that for every event there are 1,400 standing tickets available on the day for £5. And it’s no surprise that some of the hottest tickets should be for “family” concerts. The Doctor Who events (Proms 2 and 3), with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and the London Philharmonic Choir under Ben Foster, are predictable favourites, as are the Hollywood Rhapsody Prom (59) and the Film Music Prom (65). Michael Rosen’s Big Proms Bear Hunt (66), which takes place a day after the latter, on a Sunday afternoon, is another.

However, what’s interesting is that some of the heavy stuff is selling well too, notably the Wagner events and even some of the recherché premieres. The world’s biggest festival of classical music has always operated on the big-tent principle that everyone – well, almost everyone – must be catered for. But there are, as ever, some strange bits of programming, not least the inexplicable insertion of five works by the deservedly forgotten Granville Bantock, and a combination of Wagner overkill plus a pathetically inadequate recognition of the year’s other great anniversary opera-composer, Verdi.

Opera, choral, orchestral

As we discovered with his West- Eastern Divan Orchestra Beethoven series last year, Daniel Barenboim is a huge draw, and his Ring Cycle with the Staatskapelle Berlin – starring Simon O’Neill as Siegmund and the great Nina Stemme as Brünnhilde – should be an unforgettable event, even if Prommers may find the unbroken 160 minutes of Das Rheingold a challenge (14). To get three more Wagner operas might seem too much of a good thing, but perhaps not when their distinguished conductors are Semyon Bychkov (19), Donald Runnicles (29), and Mark Elder (57). Meanwhile Glyndebourne’s operatic contribution is both excellent and timely. Britten’s Billy Budd – complementing some fascinating smaller works celebrating Britten’s centenary year – will have Jacques Imbrailo and Mark Padmore as Billy and Captain Vere, and casting doesn’t come more perfect than that (60). This year’s choral highlights include two Bach oratorios (36) sung by the Monteverdi Choir with the English Baroque Soloists under John Eliot Gardiner’s direction, which will represent perfection of a different kind.

The symphonic pabulum includes fewer Mahlers and Bruckners than usual, but it’s good to see Poland’s greatest 20th-century composer  Witold Lutoslawski (another centenary boy) well represented: Louis Lortie’s performance of his piano concerto (32) should make a scintillating event, even if it’s mystifyingly paired with two old chestnuts by Holst. Like a number of others, this Prom sandwiches works with no discernible link, and will address separate audiences with little  in common.

Singers and virtuosi

Many of the regular stalwarts are back, plus some younger singers of note. Iestyn Davies will reinforce his counter-tenor dominance with the London premiere of George Lloyd’s requiem for Princess Diana (70), while the Italian firebrand, Anna Caterina Antonacci, sings Wagner’s Wesendonck-Lieder (53). Two young British tenors now making waves are well worth catching: Robin Tritschler with the Conchord Ensemble (Proms Chamber Music 6), and Cardiff prize-winner Ben Johnson with the English Chamber Orchestra (Proms Saturday Matinée 4).

Similarly with instrumentalists: regulars such as pianist Stephen Hough and violinist Janine Jansen are balanced by a blitz of young talent. The Proms debut of Norwegian violinist Vilde Frang is long overdue, but here she is twice, in recital with pianist Michail Lifits (PCM 1) and as the soloist in Bruch’s much-loved concerto (31). And four brilliant young pianists make their debut. Winner of the latest Moscow Tchaikovsky Competition and a whizz in Chopin, Daniil Trifonov will, patriotically, give Glazunov’s second piano concerto a rare airing (41), while the 18-year-old Polish-Canadian wonderboy Jan Lisiecki will play Schumann’s evergreen Concerto in A minor (10) under the baton of Antonio Pappano. It’s always moving to watch Nobuyuki Tsujii – blind from birth – make his way to the piano and acknowledge his applause after playing, but no allowances need be made as regards the quality of his performance: in Prom 6 he will play Rach Two. The Norwegian pianist Christian Ihle Hadland comes on like the school swot – hair dishevelled, jacket awry, constantly pushing up his glasses – but his Brahms (PCM 7) and his Beethoven (69) should take the breath away.

The old and the new

As in previous years, the chamber events at the Cadogan Hall are the most musically interesting of the season, with two programmes notable for their originality. In PCM 2 the Huelgas Ensemble under Paul Van Nevel will deliver 16th-century Polish choral music by five composers whose music has only recently been rediscovered. And in PCM 8 the British viol consort Fretwork will be joined by tenor Ian Bostridge and lutenist Elizabeth Kenny for a Dowland concert which will be, for some of us, unmissable. The other period highlight is a late-night concert in which the Tallis Scholars will juxtapose vocal works by Taverner (not the modern Tavener) and by that desperate genius Gesualdo, better known for disembowelling his wife and her lover – whom he caught them in flagrante – than for his exquisite polyphony (43).

There are, as usual, plenty of new commissions by bright young things, plus several new works by established composers. Harrison Birtwistle promises something interesting in the form of his The Moth Requiem for women’s voices, flute, and three harps (PCM 5), while Thomas Adès’s Totentanz will honour the memory of Lutoslawski by setting an anonymous 15th-century text which accompanied a frieze destroyed when Lübeck’s Marienkirche was bombed in 1944 (8). In Prom 39, sitar virtuoso Nishat Khan will premiere his concerto entitled The Gate of the Moon, thus treading in the footsteps of the late Ravi Shankar. And in Prom 27 Naresh Sohal will premiere his The Cosmic Dance, which will apparently examine the idea of creation as interpreted through the Upanishads and mathematical theory.

World Routes and wild cards

The late-night World Routes Prom (54) sounds over-ambitious: jamming the Tuareg group Tinariwen, two Malian singer-songwriters, and Azeri mugam – plus the usual extended promotional blarney – into 75 minutes will mean three quarts in one pint pot; they should have junked the Africans who regularly appear in London, and settled for the mugam – Azerbaijan’s wonderfully intricate vocal form – which is new at the Proms. But Django Bates, who’s been making the joint jump for decades, may deliver good entertainment when he celebrates Charlie Parker with the aid of the Norrbotten Big Band (62). The Gospel-influenced Naturally 7 (22) may be on to something interesting with their “vocal play” style, as may Nigel Kennedy’s meld of his Orchestra of Life with Palestine Strings in a new version of Vivaldi’s Seasons (34). But the concert by the 10-piece all-female brass ensemble led by glamorous Norwegian trumpeter Tine Thing Helseth (PCM 4) is yet another reminder that the really interesting stuff happens in the Cadogan Hall at lunchtime.

The BBC Proms, Friday to 7 Sept