Vaughan Williams during the First World War
Vaughan Williams during the First World War
Commemorations marking the centenary of the First World War continue with two significant concerts this week at the BBC Proms. Sunday evening brings a programme entitled “Lest we forget”. “A brilliant musician in times of peace, and an equally brilliant soldier in times of stress,” was how Brigadier General Page Croft described George Butterworth when writing to his family to inform them of his death. He set several of A.E. Housman poems from A Shropshire Lad – which predate the war by 18 years but are full of the futility of young men going off to fight, never to return. Baritone Roderick Williams sings six of these songs in orchestrations by Phillip Brookes. The first part of the concert includes music by Rudi Stephan, a German, and Frederick Kelly, an Australian-born composer, both of whom died in the First World War.

The second half of the programme is devoted to Vaughan Williams’ “Pastoral” Symphony, influenced by his experiences in France during the war and, effectively, an elegy for the dead. Andrew Manze, whose Prom concert of Symphonies 4, 5 and 6 two years ago was so overwhelming, conducts the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.

On Thursday, Britten’s War Requiem, which juxtaposes Latin text with Wilfred Owen’s poetry from the First World War. Tenor Toby Spence joins German baritone Hanno Müller-Brachmann in delivering Owen’s moving lines. Andris Nelsons conducts the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and the BBC Proms Youth Choir.

Bernard Haitink © Clive Barda
Bernard Haitink
© Clive Barda

Many great conductors will step onto the podium at the Royal Albert Hall during the Proms season this summer, but few will be received as warmly as Bernard Haitink, 85 years young, when he conducts the London Symphony Orchestra on Saturday.  A renowned interpreter of Mahler, Haitink has chosen the Fourth Symphony for the second half of his programme. Opening with jingling sleigh bells and closing with the song “Das himmlische Leben”, presenting a child's vision of Heaven, it's a symphony which has huge popular appeal. Schubert’s sunny Fifth Symphony is Haitink’s choice to counterbalance the Mahler.

The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra makes a welcome trip across the globe for their Prom under Chief Conductor Sir Andrew Davis, almost an institution in himself at the Proms as a former Principal Conductor of the BBC Symphony. Richard Strauss puts in another Proms appearance with his ardent tone poem Don Juan, while Truls Mørk is the soloist in Elgar’s Cello Concerto before Berlioz’s nightmarish Symphonie fantastique concludes the programme.

My concert of the week – and candidate for “noisiest Prom of the week” – sees Edward Gardner assembling the BBC Symphony Chorus, the Crouch End Festival Chorus, plus soloists Albina Shagimuratova, Stuart Skelton and Mikhail Petrenko for Rachmaninov’s epic choral symphony The Bells. Inspired by the poetry of Edgar Allen Poe, The Bells was one of Rachmaninov’s favourite compositions, making frequent use of the Dies irae theme which appears in so many of his other works. As if The Bells won’t provide decibels enough, Gardner ends his BBCSO concert with Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. Whether health and safety regulations permit cannon-fire in the Albert Hall remains to be seen…

Find details of all Prom concerts here. Happy listening - whether you're in the hall or tune in via the radio or the internet!