Tune in to the world’s biggest music festival

The Proms break new ground each year. Prepare for comedy and chance, says Michael Church

It has long been true that you hear them more accurately on Radio 3, but there’s no substitute for the visceral thrill of the Proms in the Royal Albert Hall.

And the world’s biggest music festival, now in its 117th year, is still splendidly on course. Its original purpose was to bring the best classical music to the widest possible audience, and if a certain amount of dumbing-down is these days de rigueur, it’s mostly limited to commentary banalities. I have long argued that the Proms should give more space to non-European musical traditions, and, year after year, they limit themselves to one or two token events, but this year’s world-music concerts – the Human Planet Prom, and the World Routes Academy Prom from South India – should be well worth a listen.

In addition to the performers listed below, there are many others I look forward to hearing. Eighteen-year-old pianist Benjamin Grosvenor on the first night, and keyboard veterans Andras Schiff, Stephen Hough, Emanuel Ax and Maria Joao Pires; harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani in the intimate acoustic of the Cadogan Hall; soprano Susan Gritton and mezzos Sarah Connolly and Christine Rice; basses Ferruccio Furlanetto, Matthew Rose and James Rutherford; the Simon Bolivar, Gustav Mahler, and National youth orchestras; and the Bibilang Shark-Calling Group should sound lovely in Hyde Park.

Virtuosi

This year, the focus is on pianists, with three of the most exciting young players in the world making their first Proms appearance. Khatia Buniatishvili may be only 23, but what she does with Liszt’s herculean Sonata in B minor should galvanise the Cadogan Hall as never before (PCM 4). No surprise that Martha Argerich took her under her wing when she was still coralled in her native Georgia: both possess the same blend of technical finesse and liberating fire. “I always feel that when I play Liszt, the sap is rising, the blood is pumping fast,” Khatia tells me. “And in this sonata he brings all human life together, in one harmonious experience.”

Later that same day, Alice Sara Ott will deliver Grieg’s ever-popular Piano Concerto in A minor, at the RAH (Prom 33). As a German-Japanese, she feels split between two cultures: “Only in music do I feel completely at home.” And how. Winning a piano competition at five confirmed her ambition: “I was astonished and delighted by the warmth of the audience response, and immediately decided that this would be my job.” She won competitions through her teens, and made her recording debut with a recording of Liszt’s Etudes d’exécution transcendante that is a miraculous meld of power, precision and poetry. “Music reveals your essence,” she comments: her Grieg should be sensational.

As should Yuja Wang’s performance of Bartok’s Piano Concerto No 2 (Prom 43). When this Chinese whirlwind played at Verbier last year, Evgeny Kissin, who was in the audience, was heard to mutter that Lang Lang should eat his heart out: Yuja is now the pre-eminent pianistic voice of China, though she hates being pigeon-holed that way. Technically, there’s nothing she can't do – check her out on YouTube – and her artistry is ultra-refined.

Opera and early music

Two peaks of 19th-century opera book-end the season, both dealing with nature and nationhood, freedom and revolution. Antonio Pappano conducts the Academy of Santa Cecilia – the orchestra and chorus who represent the parallel life he leads in Rome – in Rossini's William Tell (Prom 2) with Michele Pertusi in the title role. Lack of staging will be more than compensated for by the atmospheric colour Rossini brings to this immortal tale of the boy with the apple on his head. Hunting horns and martial trumpets set the scene, with the landscape evoked by mountain-calls; the drama of the lovers on opposite sides of a political divide will be conveyed in luscious bel canto melody.

Neither this nor Weber's Der Freischütz ("The Freeshooter") are often performed, so when John Eliot Gardiner performs Berlioz's arrangement of the latter with his Monteverdi Choir and Orchestra Revolutionnaire et Romantique, it will be just as significant an occasion (Prom 73). The opera is set in 17th-century Bohemia but, like Tell, it plays into questions about the future of Europe. Dark forces of chaos are summoned up by a character who never sings but only speaks; the orchestration was admired by Wagner, and the work became the foundation of German Romantic opera. Andrew Kennedy and Sophie Karthauser sing the leads.

In the more intimate Cadogan Hall, Christophe Rousset and his celebrated period band Les Talens Lyriques will present some of the French Baroque music they have been rediscovering (PCM 3). Lully, Couperin and Rameau are still overshadowed by Handel and Vivaldi in Britain, and this performance, which Rousset will conduct from the harpsichord, will bring their exquisitely nuanced music into focus. Rousset was the musical brains behind Gerard Corbiau's film about the castrato Farinelli. As the brains behind the liberation of "early music" from hidebound conventions, he's worth seeking out.

On the pulse

Love him or hate him, Steve Reich is the founding father of musical minimalism, and he's celebrating his 75th birthday by conducting a late-night Prom of his seminal works (Prom 36). So here we will get his Clapping Music "when two people simply make music with their bodies" – followed by Electric Counterpoint, based on a transcription of Central African horn music. Finally, comes Music for 18 Musicians, still a minimalist benchmark 35 years after its first performance, with his Ensemble Modern making a welcome return to the Proms.

Hosted by musician, comedian and rock star Tim Minchin, the first Comedy Prom will undoubtedly break new ground (Prom 40). In addition to Franz Reizenstein's Concerto Populaire – a whistle-stop tour through a series of much-loved piano concertos, starring the valiant Danny Driver – this show promises a string of surprises. The performers include BBC 2 Maestro winner Sue Perkins, musical cabaret duo Kit and the Widow, and Susan Bullock, who is one of Britain's top dramatic sopranos. Other guests are promised for this potpourri, which comes preceded by an event in which other comedians perform their favourite literary gems.

Husband-and-wife duo Viktoria Mullova and Matthew Barley (Proms 45 and 46) are always up to tricks based on the contrast between their musical styles. She is a violinist of steely classical perfection, he a cellist with a cool-dude penchant for jazz. On 18 August, they will combine to premiere a concerto that the sparky Thomas Larcher has written for them; the next evening, they are joined by pianist Julian Joseph and two percussionists for a Balkan Gypsy bash.

The wild card

In the inaugural Audience Choice Prom (64), Ivan Fischer and his Budapest Symphony Orchestra leave the choice of works to the audience. With stacks of music on hand, they will play requests.

BBC Proms 2011 (0845 401 5040; bbc.co.uk/proms), Fri to 10 Sep

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