BBC Proms reviews

Preview: BBC Proms 2021

The BBC Proms are back with audience attendance. Here’s the programme lineup.

Royal Albert Hall

Royal Albert Hall (Photo: David Levene/Royal Albert Hall)

Callooh! Callay! (and other expressions of delight). This week the BBC has announced its intention (road-map restrictions permitting) of running a Proms series this year in front of live audiences at The Royal Albert Hall and Cadogan Hall in what Director of the BBC Proms David Pickard referred to as “a curtain-raiser to normality”. Sadly, those restrictions mean that the season won’t be as extensive as it was in pre-pandemic years, so there will be a limit on the number of people in total allowed to be present (1000 in the RAH), which means smaller audience numbers and a concentration on smaller works (as platform distancing is necessary).

The uncertainties we’ve all been facing about the lifting of restrictions have meant that planning has been difficult; some concerts, then, are quite short (although may be lengthened if all goes well), and there are still a few gaps in the programme – some simply place marked with performers, others billed as ‘Mystery Proms’. It’s a shorter season, too, containing only 52 concerts and running from 30 July to 11 September. But the silver linings are many: the barriers to international travel have provided a chance to focus on home-grown talent, and all of the Proms bar one (the nomadic Mahler Chamber Orchestra in a programme of Knussen, Ravel, Purcell and Benjamin) will feature British orchestras and ensembles. Although the reductions in platform numbers mean that there are, for example, no works for large chorus and orchestra, this provides a golden opportunity for audiences to experience some rarely heard smaller-scale works: Saint‐Saëns’ first cello concerto, for example, or Respighi’s Concerto Gregoriano. The ethnically diverse orchestra Chineke! makes a welcome return to perform works by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, the return of whose works to mainstream concert repertoire is also welcomed. Lunchtime concerts at The Cadogan Hall (some of which, this year, are repeated at 18:00 at the same venue), as always, provide the chance to hear some glorious chamber music, this year delivered by the likes of Michael Collins, The Marmen Quartet , and François Leleux.

Nothing says ‘reduced personnel’ like a single instrument, and there are two organ recitals in the programme, one featuring Olivier Latry playing his own improvisations, and another by Thomas Trotter that includes music by Saint‐Saëns, who was one of the earliest famous organists to play the instrument – which, along with the Royal Albert Hall itself, is 150 years old this year. The pianists are also out in force, and the programme includes a solo Bach and Mozart recital from Víkingur Ólafsson, as well as concerti by Beethoven and Ravel, featuring Benjamin Grosvenor, Pierre‐Laurent Aimard, and an as-yet-to-be-announced concerto played by Kirill Gerstein.

Choral music isn’t entirely absent, as there are several small and medium-scale works on offer: The Marian Consort perform works by Josquin and others at The Cadogan Hall; the BBC Singers perform a mixed choral programme that showcases a new work by Shiva Feshareki; and a couple of gems from the Baroque era make an appearance: Handel’s Dixit Dominus (from the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists) and Bach’s St Matthew Passion (from Arcangelo).

Only one full opera is programmed this year – Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, presented by Glyndebourne Festival Opera, but there is a chance to sob along to a potpourri of intensely emotional opera excerpts delivered by the likes of Sally Matthews, Christine Rice and Freddie De Tommaso at the To Soothe the Aching Heart Prom.

“This week the BBC has announced its intention… of running a Proms series this year in front of live audiences…”

As always, there is a fair proportion of new and commissioned works, which include 11 world premières and eight UK premières by the likes of James MacMillan, George Lewis  and Grace-Evangeline Mason.

Programmes from the less hard-line ‘classical’ side of things include the BBC Concert Orchestra’s The Golden Age of Broadway  and Africa Meets Europe featuring the South African cellist Abel Selaocoe.

This year’s major Prom anniversary is the marking of 50 years since the death of Igor Stravinsky with performances of Pulcinella, three symphonies (performed by Simon Rattle and the LSO), and an astonishing account, entirely from memory, of The Firebird Suite by The Aurora Orchestra.

Finally, for those in search of the unusual and quirky, here are a few suggestions:

As always, every concert will be broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 (and available thereafter on BBC iPlayer), and several of the concerts will be televised. For those wishing to attend in person, there are two tranches of booking; the first (concerts from 30 July to 20 August) will open at 09:00 on 26 June; booking for the second tranche (for the remaining concerts up to 10 September) opens at 09:00 on 13 August. Ticketing details can be found here. As always, full details of the programme can be found on the BBC’s Proms page.

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Preview: BBC Proms 2021