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The Lebrecht Weekly


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

Getting Rattled

By Norman Lebrecht / January 12, 2005


Few people survive quarter of a century in the public eye without facing criticism. Simon Rattle is one of the blessed few.

From the day he raised a baton as principal conductor in Birmingham in 1980, Rattle has been the golden boy of classical music. In a blackspot of brutalist architecture and Thatcherite industrial wipeout Rattle turned a provincial orchestra into a brand leader.

The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra became the first in Britain to win million-pound annual funding. Its new hall – built, at Rattle’s demand, to the specifications of the world's foremost concert hall acoustician Russell Johnson – had the best sound in the land.

Rattle reached out to schools and minorities, rejuvenating audiences and civic pride. His enthusiasm for new music boosted young composers like Mark Anthony Turnage and Thomas Ades and bred a grassroots Contemporary Music Group. Ed Smith, the executive who engaged him and implemented his ideas, refers to him still as a genius.

Rattle left Birmingham in 1998 on a cloud of glory. Players in London may have wondered why, while conducting, he never looked them in the eye and colleagues might mutter that he was too goody-goody, too right-on, too heart-on-sleeve. But such cavils never reached his ears. Rattle was too big a hero, too important to the art’s survival, for anyone in the music world to risk offending him.

His sights were now set at the summits. He reworked Beethoven’s nine symphonies with the Vienna Philharmonic, which had played them ab creatio, introducing period-instrument techniques and modern scholarly hypotheses. He palled up with Tony Blair at Downing Street. When Claudio Abbado quit the Berlin Philharmonic after an unhappy, post-Karajan decade, Rattle was waiting, stick in hand.

Beating Daniel Barenboim in a players’ ballot, he began with a bang. The first piece he conducted was by Ades and he was soon out in the schools, challenging Berlin kids to dance to his Rite of Spring. The city coughed up record public funding and he won £10 million from Deutsche Bank in education grants. He was halfway through his second season before anyone pointed out that he was merely replaying Birmingham, without variations.

In an eye-catching article last April, Axel Brueggermann, cultural editor of Die Welt am Sonntag, argued that the Philharmonic’s distinctive sound and tradition were being eroded by Rattle. Superimposing his moptop on Karajan’s craggy face in an eye-catching image, Brueggermann warned that the Philharmonic had exchanged one autocracy for another. When I talked to him the other day (for BBC2's Culture Show), Brueggermann’s criticism was pointed: ‘he conducts in little bars, in little ideas, in a postmodern way. He denies the big picture.’

Last summer, at the BBC Proms, the reviews were the worst Berlin has ever received on British soil. Stephen Pettitt, in the Evening Standard, found the delicate texture of Debussy’s La Mer ‘inadequately transparent, so that although one sensed the power of deep-sea current, there was little feeling of landscape, salt-spray, bracing gust, or dancing light.’ My ears glued to a digital radio, I could not believe I was hearing the Berlin Phil harmonic, so slack was the sound, so unfocussed (players later confided they were worn out at the end of a gruelling tour, but that’s no excuse). It was clear that the honeymoon was over and the outlook uncertain.

Coping with criticism is never easy for an artist, least of all for one who turns 50 next week and has never tasted adversity. Chummy with his peers, politically adroit, image-protected by loyal allies – the BBC Proms controller Nicholas Kenyon is his licensed biographer – Rattle has cultivated, like Karajan, a cocoon of impregnability whose absolute defence is essential to his artform’s prosperity.

Media savvy, he gave a soft interview last week admitting that his relationship with the orchestra was ‘turbulent’. As a token of commitment, he has upped sticks from Islington (where his ex-wife keeps the house) and moved to Berlin with his new love, the Czech mezzo-soprano, Magdalena Kozena, who is expecting their child. His box-office appeal at the Philharmonie is undented.

Nevertheless, Rattle has not got this far without being a realist and, while he denies reading reviews, he will be aware of rumbling dissents – and of the ovations his rival Barenboim received last month when he conducted a memorial concert for Wilhelm Furtwängler, Karajan’s predecessor, on the 50th anniversary of his death. Barenboim, it was said, allowed the Berlin Philharmonic to perform to its strengths.

His philosophical breadth contrasted starkly with Rattle’s deconstructionist approach to classical and romantic repertoire. Rattle's Beethoven cycle with Vienna fell halfway between period style and modern pizzazz and he tends to convey emotional upsurge more by physical gesticulation than by innate feeling. Veteran Berlin players implore other maestros to lead them in Brahms. They have a need that the chief conductor is not fulfilling.

There are questions, too, over Rattle’s social policies – whether his emphasis on education, education, education, brings structured social benefits, or whether it is just a Blairite gesture, a feel good media opportunity of no durable substance. What was new and exciting in 1980s Birmingham bears scant relevance to post-Wall Berlin, a city of two abiding halves where Rattle has vastly enriched the western Philharmonic while orchestras in the east are desubsidised, their musicians thrown on the scrapheap.

Rattle has imported his favourite British composers and a raft of old mates - Richard McNicol of the LSO is in charge of education; Simon Halsey, of the Birmingham chorus, heads the radio choir in Berlin. The Philharmonic players who are closest to Rattle are those from English-speaking countries. Much as he needs allies, these dependent friends tend to shield him from gritty realities and icy currents of dissent.

At 50, Rattle becomes a senior statesman, an establishment figure. He risks entering the kind of self-protective custody that turned Karajan from a powerfully engaged maestro into a misery on Parnassus, watching the world drift away from his concept and his grasp. Rattle has detached himself from his country without fully mastering German language or culture. He is perilously adrift from the way others are starting to perceive him. He may not enjoy reading bad reviews, but unless he gets to grips with shifting perceptions he will wind up in the ivory tower he has always struggled to escape. At 50, and on top of the world, Simon Rattle still has all to prove.

> Simon Rattle Discography at

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



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001