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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

The ultimate orchestral sensation

By Norman Lebrecht / March 26, 2003

Ever wondered what conductors do in bed? It's not that inspiring. Haggard with jet lag, tossing and turning on crumpled sheets in a Tokyo or Toronto hotel suite, they play a game of Fantasy Orchestras to while away the unrelenting night. Here's how. Take two concertmasters from the Vienna Philharmonic, one from the Concertgebouw and a fourth from San Francisco.

Add the cello section of the Berlin Philharmonic, the double-basses of St Petersburg, the new principal flute in New York, that fetching bassoonist in Pittsburgh, horns from Cleveland and Chicago, woodwind ad libitum and violas to taste. Stir gently and, if you're still awake, you will have created the paramount orchestra on earth.

Several conductors have cut me in on this private game but none has converted the fantasy into waking reality - until now. Claudio Abbado, presiding at this summer's Lucerne Festival, has cherry-picked players from symphony and chamber orchestras, string quartets and solo rosters to form an ensemble that will be the envy of Salzburg and a thumb in the eye for the Berlin Philharmonic, from whom Abbado parted company last year.

His Lucerne all-stars include two Berlin concertmasters, Kolya Blacher and Rainer Kussmaul, along with the ex-principal flute (Emmanuel Pahud), viola (Wolfram Christ) and oboe (Albrecht Mayer). In addition, Abbado has signed up half the Hagen Quartet, the virtuoso cellist Natalya Gutmann, Alois Posch (double-bass) from the Vienna Philharmonic and Sabine Meyer (clarinet) of Munich. Rub your disbelieving ears, ye heavenly hosts, and weep.

Such dreams can come true only at festival time. In permanent orchestras, maestros get along with tenured musicians of uneven temperament and with the human clay thrown up at auditions. Here, the fantasy is harder to sustain. There are two known chemical reactions that take place between conductor and orchestra and both can go badly wrong.

Orchestras choose conductors in a flash of infatuation that often dies by the time the maestro has cleared his diary and arrives to start work. There is every chance that, by the time James Levine reaches Boston in September 2004, the champagne will have gone flat. Making magic, the new conductor must avoid making enemies. Franz Welser-Most, sometime terror of the London Philharmonic, has just marked his first mid-season in Cleveland by sacking three principal players.

Levine, by comparison, is so laid back about Boston that he cannot even be bothered to attend auditions, leaving it to a committee of players to select new recruits.

Simon Rattle kept the Berlin Philharmonic waiting for three years but, from his inaugural concert last September, struck exactly the right note. What was so remarkable about his performance of Mahler's Fifth Symphony was that it changed the way the orchestra sounded, forsaking the efficient purr of Karajan and Abbado for more dangerous, juddering entries reminiscent of their distant predecessor, Wilhelm Furtw‰ngler.

In a candid interview with Der Tagespiegel, Rattle dismissed Karajan's sound as inflexible and Abbado's as slack. His own rehearsals are punctuated with laughter and his coffee breaks with noisy debate. As a musical reactor, Rattle is in the nuclear class.

Yet, for all his success in Berlin, Rattle has a Fantasy Orchestra that give him no rest. The Vienna Philharmonic, who have no chief conductor, have been wooing him for a decade. Two years ago, Rattle became only the fifth conductor in 160 years to lead the Viennese in a live cycle of the nine Beethoven symphonies. For a long-haired music-lover from Liverpool, the lure of Vienna was irresistible, but Rattle was man enough to impose his own terms.

He made the Viennese set aside their time-hallowed scores and relearn the symphonies from a steam-cleaned scholarly edition prepared by the British conductor Jonathan Del Mar from the composer'smanuscripts. The variances between the Beethoven we know all too well and the notes he actually wrote are legion, affecting not just literal discrepancies but the structural balance of key passages in the Third, Seventh and Ninth symphonies. Even a casual listener will notice atmospheric changes just before the "Freude" chorus in the Ninth.

For the professors in the Philharmonic these exhumations, allied to Rattle's sparkling enthusiasm, elicited concert performances of, by most accounts, astonishing clarity and excitation. Their cycle was recorded by EMI and, newly released, shot this week to the top of the UK classical charts - evidence not so much of a classical revival as of the strength of Rattle's fan-base and of the quickening domestic interest in his European progress.

Another milestone, then, for the unstoppable Rattle? Not quite. The trouble with recordings is that, unlike concerts, they can be soberly cross-referenced and critically compared. Some of Rattle's interpretations in this boxed set - the First and Eighth symphonies, in particular - are stunningly vivacious and, at the same time, rewardingly reflective. These are, however, peripheral works. The core symphonies are perplexingly, even perversely, inconsistent. The Eroica is disabled from the outset by wilfully slow lower strings. The Seventh can't seem to decide which customs channel to enter, or what it has to declare.

It is not the fault of Del Mar's edition. The Eroica, recorded four years ago in this version by David Zinman and the Tonhalle orchestra of Zurich, came up fresh as daisies. What is lacking in Rattle's account is va-va-voom - Schwung, the Viennese would call it.

And that's the conundrum of this cycle, which is admirable and challenging in many parts but dispiriting in the vital ones. One observer of a recent concert told me that he felt Rattle and the Vienna Philharmonic had too much respect for each other. It was a case of "after you" - "no, after you".

Be that as it may, the recording never achieves the combustion of Rattle's London cycle of the Beethoven symphonies with the less illustrious Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. It may be that Vienna is a fantasy too far for Rattle, one that Sigmund Freud would have advised him to leave well alone.

Rattle, though, will not let go. "I dream," he told Der Tagespiegel, "of conducting both orchestras, Berlin and Vienna, on a single platform one day."

Some dreams, every conductor must know, are best left unrealised.

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001