BBC Proms, Royal Albert Hall, London

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The Lucerne Festival Orchestra’s exceptional Prom last week has rather spoiled the party for everybody else. It has set the standard by which the other visiting orchestras will now be judged although, with top orchestras from Vienna, Boston, Leipzig and San Francisco on their way, the competition should be fun to watch.

On Friday, a pair of Proms brought another two of the best. The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra has been a loyal visitor to the BBC Proms and this year it returns with Bernard Haitink, now the orchestra’s conductor laureate.

Their early evening concert included a single huge work, Bruckner’s Symphony No 8. And huge it sounded, too – glowing, grand, glorious, right from the opening bars, where the basic level of volume was immediately several notches higher than the Lucerne players a couple of nights before. It had been clear at the time how extraordinarily restrained and intimate their playing was but the comparison with Haitink’s Bruckner hammered the point home.

That is not to suggest that the Dutch Bruckner was overblown. Haitink has immersed himself in this music for a lifetime and knows the symphony’s pulse, its heartbeat and sound world as if they are his own. On the long journey to its triumphant conclusion, he showed how well he understands the place of every note in Bruckner’s grand design and the Amsterdam players rewarded him with a majestic performance.

At 10pm they were followed by the Mahler Chamber Orchestra – the same players who form the basis of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra – with pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, here doubling as conductor. Their programme was a strange mixture, sandwiching low-fat, sleight-of-hand, 20th century piano solos in between two solid slices of the German classical repertoire, both in B flat major (yes, the keys do matter – one’s ears pick up these things).

Haydn’s Symphony No.102 came across as neatly drilled, but not very affectionately played. More rewarding was Aimard’s inward way with Beethoven’s Second Piano Concerto, which discovered unexpected corners of hushed concentration. But the best of this late-night offering came in Aimard’s solo performances of Ligeti Etudes – brilliantly original pieces, alive with wit and intelligence, and an ideal antidote to the Teutonic seriousness of the rest of the evening.

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