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The Lebrecht Weekly


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

Rattle has a battle on his hands

By Norman Lebrecht / August 23, 2006

One weekend early this summer, a pair of articles appeared in the German press suggesting that all was not well at the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. Readers of Die Welt were told that the gloss had worn off Sir Simon Rattle’s winning smile. ‘We've seen through his permanent expression of ecstasy, which has curdled into a mask, wrote Manuel Brug. Another critic, Fabian Bremer in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, reported a yearning for ‘a new Karajan’, a German leader who would restore pomp and pride to an ensemble that used to be recognised as the world’s finest.

Nothing about these comments was extreme or exceptional, but what followed was an over-reaction of cosmic proportions, an attack of counter-spin that made Tony Blair’s machine seem cataleptic by comparison. Overnight, British newspapers flourished friendly profiles along with testimonials to Rattle’s genius. The veteran pianist Alfred Brendel published a pained letter in the Guardian averring that ‘with Simon, I can only say that I have never heard any playing surpass that of the BPO’.

Rattle’s friends went after the unknown Bremer, who turned out to be a prominent polemicist, Axel Brüggemann, assistant editor of Die Welt am Sonntag, writing under a pseudonym. Brüggemann, who had previously lashed out at Rattle in his own paper, was made to resign and was last seen editing a CD magazine for a record store. The dissent was crushed in a week.

Still, effective as it was in suppressing criticism, the ferocity of the counter-attack exposed a deepening fragility in the curly-headed British conductor. Seven years after being elected as music director and four after his triumphal entry to Berlin with his portrait plastered on bus stops, Rattle, 51, is facing an ocean of troubles that cannot be held back by lashings of charm and spin control. The question being asked is whether he has the intellect, the emotional strength and the clarity of purpose to develop the orchestra for a very different age of media dissemination.

Setting aside for the moment the quality of performances, there is no denying that the Berlin Philharmonic is not what it was. The collapse of classical recording has cost the orchestra much of its fame and fortune. Rattle, under contract to EMI, gets to make as many records in a year – four or five - as Herbert von Karajan would pump out in a month. The players have seen their pay packets shrink and while Rattle won them a fatter deal from the city Senate, Berlin is going bankrupt and it won’t be able to keep the haughty players forever in new Porsches.

Rattle’s early initiatives with schools, community projects and ethnic minorities have been politically applauded and seen on TV. His espousal of new music has not scared off diehard concertgoers. Attendances are high and tickets hard to come by. Judging by the full houses and standing ovations, all is well in the gold-tinted Philharmonie.

But its surroundings are in perpetual flux. The hall, built in wasteland near the Berlin Wall, now sits on Europe’s hottest real estate with multinational offices as neighbours and rising resentment among deprived East Berliners. The orchestra has ignored the ambient revolutions, political and technological. Demanding high fees and antedeluvian media contracts, it refuses to contemplate the post-CD alternatives of webcasting, own-labels, free downloads and mobile phone tones. While bands in London, Munich and Helsinki seize the virtual future, the Berlin Philharmonic under Simon Rattle is living on reputation – in other words, on borrowed time.

Sticking to elite festivals, the Berliners hit a wall of bad reviews at Aix en Provence last month with a tepid Rheingold, the opening segment of a four-year Ring cycle that Rattle is developing with the French director Stephane Braunschweig. ‘Both Stephane and I very much felt that all the Ring is about conversations between people and relations between people, and that somehow the more intimate the better,’ Rattle told Austrian Radio, ahead of a Salzburg Festival visit.

But both his woolly-liberal approach to Wagner and his insistence on being interviewed in English (his German remains unstable) accentuate the gulf between Rattle’s titular status as conductor of the premier German orchestra and the expectations of black-tie festival audiences for Wagnerian sound and fury.

Rattle will hope to put these reversals out of mind as he heads off next week with the Berliners for the Proms and Edinburgh Festival. On home turf, he will be assured of a warm reception. He brings with him a new CD of Gustav Holst’s The Planets, the most successful piece of orchestral music ever to be written on English soil.

Issued by EMI, the album has all the hallmarks of Rattle’s proselytising form of programme making, developed over 18 years as music director in Birmingham. The suite is furnished not only with an extra planet, Pluto, composed by Colin Matthews for the millennium, but with four new works on astral themes by living composers: the Englishman Mark-Anthony Turnage, the Paris-based Finn Kaija Saariaho, the young German Matthias Pintscher and the Australian violist, Brett Dean, who used to play in the Berlin Philharmonic. The synthesis of a well-worn score with non-abrasive contemporary works creates a Rattle-style chain of continuity between glorious past and meagre present, an illusion that symphonic music is creatively alive and consistently relevant to the soundbite age.

The new works are by far the most appealing element on disc, sumptuously played by virtuoso instrumentalists. Saariaho’s sound world shimmers and deceives; Pintscher clatters round the periphery of the band, drawing disparities together in blazing unity; Turnage beguiles as ever with sinuous sonorities; and Dean whispers his way into a congenial colloquium. Not a tune to be whistled in the lot of them, this is nonetheless as impressive a catalogue of filmic sound effects that you will find anywhere outside a neighbourhood multiplex. Enchantingly beautiful, too, I should add.

The black hole on the record is The Planets. Rattle has been conducting the suite for half his life and has recorded it once before with the Philharmonia in London. Yet the performance is strangely hesitant, almost apologetic, as it assembles strands, sounds and colours into Holst’s big tunes, the most famous of which – and the least effective here – is the big tune in Jupiter, as trenchant and English an anthem as Elgar at his minted imperial. The suite is episodic, non-propulsive, insipid in stretches.

Splendidly as the Berliners play, set beside either of Karajan’s two recordings of The Planets what is lacking in the Rattle interpretation is a coherent sense of direction - and that can be taken as a metaphor for the general state of play in the Berlin Philharmonic. High as Rattle has risen, he has failed to convince with much of his music making at the level to which Berliners are accustomed.

Few want to see another Karajan dictatorship and there is no immediate threat to Rattle’s position, expect perhaps vestigially from the German nationalist Christian Thielemann, but this performance of The Planets suggests that someone needs to get a grip on the Berlin Philharmonic before it descends into a pleasant debating society. Somehow the bite has gone from Rattle’s baton. He may need, in mid-life and for the first time in his life, to read some of the bad reviews and reflect on what is going wrong.

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



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