Bernard Haitink conducts Beethoven's Missa Solemnis at the First Night of the Proms at the Royal Albert Hall, London (0171-589 8212) 18 Jul, 7.30pm

It now seems customary for a new Proms season to open with a massive choral blockbuster and this year is no exception - the work in question is Beethoven's epic Missa Solemnis, a product of the same period, towards the end of the composer's life, that gave us the Choral Symphony. Apart from its sheer scale (some 90 minutes long), the Missa Solemnis is unorthodox both liturgically and musically, with Beethoven returning to a number of earlier models by Palestrina, Bach, Handel and Haydn, yet always extending their scope, especially in terms of fugal and multi-layered contrapuntal writing. The result is a highly personal statement and also an awe-inspiring one.

And the first person to admit as much is its conductor on Friday, Bernard Haitink. Even for so distinguished and experienced a maestro, the Missa Solemnis remains, he says, "a very challenging and even terrifying prospect. One of its enduring problems is always going to be balance between the three very separate groups of soloists, chorus and orchestra. Beethoven allows for a coming together of all participants but to get there with him has to be hard won. To begin with, there are these precariously high and shimmering tessituras, with the sopranos literally having to shout their lungs out. Then, even beyond the sheer technical difficulties, lie the contours of the whole - to make it both serene and dramatic, powerful and transcendental."

For Haitink, the Proms engagement comes at an interesting time, with the Royal Opera House closing down for two years. "I will just have finished conducting two last performances of Meistersinger in the old house," he says, philosophically, "and then plunge from there straight into the concert hall and the Missa Solemnis. Why do I do it? Well, I couldn't refuse. With these superb and dedicated BBC forces, it should be a marvellous and also very moving occasion."


Pre-empting the Proms proper by a whole week, the Royal Philharmonic's Charity Prom in aid of the Cancer CARE Appeal tonight offers a summery potpourri of light-classical lollipops and typical Last Night of the Proms fare, culminating in a grand firework finale to the strains of the 1812, in the Thameside setting of Battersea Park. Tickets pounds 18: ring 0171-420 0000.

Further Charity Proms in Kent: Cobham Hall, nr Rochester (19 Jul), Quex Park, Birchington (26 Jul), Chilham Castle (16 Aug). Ticket hotline 01843 232281