Proms 47, 49 & 53, Royal Albert Hall, London
London Contemporary Orchestra, Roundhouse, Camden, London
Don Giovanni, Soho Theatre, London

Orchestras made up of the world’s present and future principals, the best orchestral players on the planet, dazzle at the Proms

Claudio Abbado was the unseen master at three of this season's most arresting Proms, his place on the podium taken first by Bernard Haitink with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe (Proms 47 and 49), then by Sir Colin Davis with the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester (Prom 53).

Founder of the GMJ, Abbado's work with the European Community Youth Orchestra inspired its alumni to form the COE. With Spira Mirabilis, the self-directed ensemble founded by three violinists from Abbado's Lucerne Orchestra, the COE and the GMJ are the heartbeat of European classical music: principal players in today's and tomorrow's great orchestras, conservators and revolutionaries.

Sentiment is never absent when an octogenarian conducts an orchestra whose members are under 26 years of age. This ever-changing, brilliant ensemble evidently loves and respects the elder statesmen of conducting. Davis remained seated for much of the GMJ concert, his hands folded like Whistler's mother as a capacity audience listened in astonishment to the dexterity of the pizzicato Scherzo in Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony. When the full, feverish cannonade of the Finale was unleashed with a slice of Davis's baton, it was terrifying, tear-pricking.

Stravinsky's Symphony in Three Movements asks less for emotional engagement than dumb admiration, its imperious fox-trotting and sly neo-classicism a showpiece for chamber-music precision on a symphonic scale. But Ravel's Shéhérazade saw Davis play with the sheerest tints of colours from a reduced orchestra: the clarinets idling luxuriously under the "voiles violettes" of Tristan Klingsor's lyrics, the "flûte enchantée" of André Cebriá* Garea as cool as jade. Here the threat of death is mollified by the musky promise of le petit mort. Mezzo-soprano Susan Graham curled her voice closely around each provocation, throwing her head back at the shuddering wave-break of "Asie" – a masterstroke of erotic fakery in a masterpiece of exotic fakery. After such cynicism, Tchaikovsky's honesty was devastating. From timpani of astonishing expressivity to each down-turned smile from the puckish woodwind, each urgent stroke of the bow, the GMJ made the symphony into a bitter, compulsive romance. There are orchestras capable of playing as well, but not orchestras capable of playing this hard.

A generation older but no less generous in its musicianship, the COE gave two exquisitely detailed performances of Brahms with pianist Emanuel Ax and Haitink. Visibly refreshed by working with a small orchestra, the veteran conductor produced a Fourth Symphony of impeccable lucidity, with pizzicato as clear as bowed notes and a deliciously peppery tone from the bassoons.

I have never understood the criticisms of Brahms as being overly academic. Here, in the silky desolation of the Third Symphony, in the skinless, confessional rhapsody of the First Piano Concerto's Adagio and the defiant knock-and-pull of the Second Piano Concerto's Scherzo is music's great 19th-century novel. Brahms was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth, nor a beard on his chin. Haitink, who professed that the word "interpretation" made him feel seasick, seemed to convey this and more. He and Ax may be safe hands but this was high drama.

Away from the Proms, another circular institution has clothed its interior with silicon rods. At the Roundhouse, Camden, dancers spiral through the air, cogs turn and moths silently sing their candlelit Liebestods, projected on to Ron Arad's installation Curtain Calls. It's a perfect setting for chamber music, though the amplification in London Contemporary Orchestra's performance of Vaughan Williams, Adams, Woolrich and Pärt homogenised the spatial properties of the venue and blurred the frayed, nervous beauty of Shaker Loops. Interpolated with Tallis anthems from an eight-voice consort in the gallery – the first, "Why fumeth in fight", the theme on which Vaughan Williams's Fantasia is based – LCO's performance was sensitively paced and programmed. Now I'd like to hear them unplugged.

Robin Norton-Hale's Don Giovanni shaves Mozart's dramma giocoso down to two hours, 15 minutes. It's brash, energetic and demotic – more BBC3 than BBC Radio 3 – but, like Shéhérazade, makes promises it doesn't keep. The electronic twist on the Overture (think "scratch" technique) is barely explored elsewhere and most of the innovation is in Norton-Hale's translation. The recasting of the aristocratic libertine as a handsome hedge-funder called Johnny Sterling (Marc Callahan) is amusing, if glib. So too is the transposition of Masetto (Spiro Fernando) as an anti-capitalist student. Pleasingly, Norton-Hale is decisive about Johnny's crimes: this is rape, not consensual sex. The acting is strong, the singing less so, though one effect of all the cutting is to give greater poignancy to the uncut Act II arias, Elvira's "Mi tradi" (Rosalind Coad) and Anna's "Non mi dir" (Fleur Bray), both faultlessly accompanied by pianist Emily Leather. Not for purists.

'Don Giovanni' (020-7478 0100) to 17 Sep

Next Week:

Anna Picard peruses the Budapest Festival Orchestra's Liszt, in Edinburgh

Classical Choice

Scottish Opera’s production of Kurt Weill’s The Seven Deadly Sins opens at the HMV Picture House, Edinburgh, (29 Aug). The BBC Proms continue with Yo-Yo Ma (29 and 31 Aug), the John Wilson Orchestra (29 Aug), and the Israel Philharmonic (1 Sep), Royal Albert Hall, London, BBC Radio 3 and online. British Youth Opera marks the start of the new season with The Marriage of Figaro, Peacock Theatre, London, from 3 Sep.

Arts and Entertainment Musical by Damon Albarn


Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment


film review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
    10 best statement lightbulbs

    10 best statement lightbulbs

    Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
    Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
    Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

    Dustin Brown

    Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
    Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test