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