Simon Rattle: Marching to a revolutionary beat

Simon Rattle will get a hero's welcome at the Proms next month, but there's growing discord over his stewardship of the Berlin Philharmonic, which his critics say has lost its fabled 'German sound'. That's just not true, the conductor tells Sholto Byrnes
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"I'm always thrilled to be back," says Sir Simon Rattle of the BBC Proms, to which he returns next month as head of what many consider to be the finest orchestra on the planet, the Berlin Philharmonic. "It's a kind of home, something the rest of the world envies us for."

Rattle first attended the Royal Albert Hall concerts at the age of 10, when he saw Sir Malcolm Sargent conduct Belshazzar's Feast. He knows well the extraordinary power of this festival.

"I remember talking to the trombone section of the Vienna Philharmonic after we'd done Mahler's Second there," he says, "and they said to me, 'Simon, we're sorry, but there was a moment in the finale when we really couldn't play.'" One of the trombonists explained that he'd seen two female promenaders with tears streaming down their faces; he showed his colleagues, and they all started crying too. "It was so touching," Rattle recalls. "They were simply astonished by what they saw and felt there."

We are sitting on the terrace of a villa just outside Aix-en-Provence, where Rattle is conducting a Wagner festival. Near us lies a toy digger belonging to Rattle's one-year-old son by the Czech mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kozena. Pointing to the toy, Rattle takes off his sunglasses and beams; after two previous marriages and already the father of two older sons, he is the picture of domestic bliss.

I ask if his children are musical. "Well, I have three sons of extremely different ages," he says. "Twenty-two-year-old Sasha, who lives with us in Berlin, is studying with the principal clarinet of the Berlin Philharmonic. There's Eliot, 16, who lives in San Francisco with his mum, who says that everyone else in this family does music so he won't be caught dead doing it. And I have a one-year-old who's much more interested in diggers. 'Digger' was almost his first word."

He says of his eldest son: "I would never have guessed that Sasha would be a musician, that music would be so deeply within him. But I'm delighted. What I want for any of my children is just to have some great immovable passion. So who knows what that might be? But here, it's certainly diggers!"

With the late afternoon sun still burning strong over the fields of toasting lavender in the valley beneath us, it seems natural to voice only warmth about the return to our shores of a man who has reached a peak no Briton has before. When the musicians of the Berlin Philharmonic voted in 1999 for the 51-year-old to take up the baton once wielded by Karajan, Abbado and Furtwängler, even The Sun congratulated him. "A Brit has now got the BIGGEST job with Germany's greatest orchestra. It proves that Simon is a winner, and that Britain should be proud of its musicians - from him," added the red-top paper of record, "to the Spice Girls. Bravo, Simon."

"At its best, there's nothing like this," Rattle admits. "And I don't underestimate how extraordinary it is for them to have a Brit at their helm." Ah, but there's the rub, the storm lurking beyond the Provençal horizon. "Extraordinary" is one way of putting it; "complicated" would be another. At the time of Rattle's appointment, the former controller of Radio 3 and the Proms, Sir John Drummond, warned: "He'll have a honeymoon period. Then he will have to think really hard about how difficult he wants to be."

Whether Rattle wanted difficulties or not, they have arisen. The honeymoon came to an abrupt end earlier this year when two Berlin critics launched attacks on him. "The thrill has gone, has yielded to more pedestrian charms," wrote Die Welt's Manfred Brug, who accused Rattle's conducting of being "hollow" and "devoid of penetration". Brug wrote: "We are well acquainted with his dashing gestures, we've seen through his permanent expression of ecstasy, which has curdled into a mask... He induces mild despair in the experts by essentially failing to expand, blithely diversifying instead of specialising."

Another critic, Alex Bruggemann, was even ruder. "While Rattle romps expressively on the podium," he wrote after one performance, "the Philharmonic musicians sometimes tend to play as inconsequentially as if they were a wife reaching to the fridge to get out a beer for her husband." The talk has reached far and wide in the classical world; it has gone way beyond the caustic words of a couple of local critics.

I raise the subject carefully. Not for nothing are conductors' egos known to be somewhat delicate, and Rattle lacks the iron certainty of some maestros. Responding to some of the criticism in Berlin, he sounded wounded. In Nicholas Kenyon's biography of Rattle, there is an unattributed quote that jumps from the page - "he always thought anything that went wrong was his fault" - and the voices claiming that something has gone very wrong have been loud indeed.

Rattle is measured in his response. "Look," he says in the Liverpudlian tones that have been little diminished by his being a white-tie wearing knight of the podium, "music journalists have a necessity to make a living. Nobody going to work with an orchestra like the * * Berlin Philharmonic thinks that it is going to be easy. That would be a foolish thought. But there is a complete passion for the music and a devotion to each other. One of the most touching things over this last time has been the reaction from the orchestra. It's been, 'Don't you mess with our boy. This is us you're talking about. Many things may not be to everyone's taste, but actually we are a very, very solid unit.'"

Rattle has been chided for abandoning the core repertoire and playing too much new music (such as the Asteroids, new works by Mark-Anthony Turnage and three others that will accompany Rattle and the BPO's recording of The Planets, out on EMI next month). More serious, however, is the accusation that under Rattle the Berlin Philharmonic has lost its famed "German sound". The orchestra has always been seen as the pre-eminent guardian of this particularly warm, rich approach, which has been cultivated so successfully down the road at the Berlin Staatsoper by the man who lost out to Rattle in 1999 - Daniel Barenboim

"I would hate to neglect the core centre," Rattle says. "But it was also necessary to have a very wide constituency of music. Actually, that was the mandate from the orchestra - it was, 'Please, without losing our centre, stretch us, show us new things. Play Rameau, French music, more Mozart and Haydn' - which they hadn't played for a long time."

Part of this mandate for change - and when the orchestra was choosing its new music director, Barenboim was seen as the continuity choice and rejected as such - was just such an expansion of material. That, according to Rattle, necessitated a different approach to the sound. "There's not a basic repertoire of 30 or 40 pieces any more," he says. "Players are expected to know it all, from Monteverdi to yesterday. Orchestras are no longer Procrustean beds, where we have our sound and the composer must fit to that. We're all searching for the different sounds that belong with different composers.

"To lose that fantastic, deep, fat, dark chocolate sound of the Berlin Philharmonic would be a tragedy. But no one can think that this is suitable for all music. Just because it's pleasurable does not mean that that's what the composer wants to say. You need to have that sound, but with many other sounds available too."

The orchestra may have voted for change, just as, initially, the critics did. Perhaps when it came, however, it struck some as more unsettling than they expected. "It's possibly true that they like the concept, but not what it involves," Rattle concedes. "But this stuff comes with the territory. I remember the much worse bullshit that Claudio [Abbado] got from the critics. That is really what sent him packing. And I know the same thing happened with [Herbert von] Karajan."

It's the memory of Karajan that naysayers unhappy with his successors' performances invariably invoke. When Christian Thielemann, until a couple of years ago the third main conductor resident in Berlin, was described by a member of the capital's senate as "the young Karajan", it was meant as the highest praise. Yet even "Holy Herbert" fell out with the orchestra towards the end, and he had actually resigned as chief conductor a few months before his death.

Abbado's announcement that he would not be seeking to stay when his contract ran out in 2002 was even more shocking. "You do realise that he's the first conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic who's not been carried out in a box?" says Rattle. "The history is that we stay, if we can."

He continues: "Actually, someone found some old articles about Furtwängler, asking why he was wasting his time with all this second-rate new music when he should have been dealing with the great classical canon. That made me smile. It is simply part of the fact that music and music-making are highly subjective. You can't be to everybody's taste. But I must say that the support of the orchestra really helps. We know we're all in it together, and I know that much greater conductors than I have had a much worse time of it. So I try not to weep into my coffee too much."

Bringing Rattle, the curly-maned Liverpudlian who raised the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra from a provincial band to world-class status, to Berlin was a bold step. There has always been an ebullience, a breadth and a lack of formality to Rattle that marked him out from more patrician, stiffer conductors.

As a young child, Rattle's first love was jazz, although by the time he was seven his favourite reading was Berlioz's Treatise on Instrumentation. At 15, he conducted his first symphony concert for a local charity. Having asked the Liverpool Spastic Fellowship if he could put on a musical evening for them, the organisers were astounded when he turned up with a 75-piece orchestra. "We thought he had a small concert in mind," said one official.

Three years later, at the Royal Academy of Music in London, he conducted his fellow students in Mahler's Second, a piece that had convinced him that music was to be his life's work when he first heard it aged 11. He gained an agent and, the following year, a post at the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra after winning the John Player International Conductors competition. Positions with the BBC Scottish Symphony and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic followed. Then, in 1980, he took over at the CBSO.

His time there, during which he championed 20th-century music, conducted period-instrument concerts with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, and investigated Ellington and Gershwin, made him a household name in Britain and a frequent guest on the podiums of the world's great orchestras.

Such eclecticism, however, is not necessarily considered a virtue in Germany. A former intendant of the BPO, Elmar Weingarten, described Rattle's appointment as "a risk". But it seems that the orchestra was ready for change. Talking about the auditions at which all the players vote on whom to admit to their ranks, Rattle tells me something extraordinary. "Believe it or not," he says, "I'm the first conductor who's been allowed to speak at these auditions. I think there was a worry with Karajan that his voice would cow too many people. In an autocratic time, that could have been true. But those days are over."

Rattle is quite firm about this, almost falling off his chair when I ask him if the players call him "maestro". "You are being British and ironic, aren't you?" he says. "It happens in Italy, of course - you make a good cappuccino there and you're a maestro. So you damn well should be," he jokes. "In America, it happens. But in the rest of the world, no." He must know that this isn't true. He just disapproves strongly of the older, more dictatorial methods. "The autocratic way, which was possible until so very recently," he says, "was scandalous."

He mentions tales of the regime run by the late George Szell at the Cleveland Orchestra in America. "No one was allowed any facial hair," he says. "So there was this violinist who said when Szell died, 'From now until my death I will never shave or cut my hair again.'" When he met him, recalls Rattle, the violinist had "a beard down to his knees, incredibly long hair, and played like a demon."

Nowadays, he says, a conductor rules through musical authority rather than fear. "It's a very different thing. It's something you earn, and I think that it also works better. I'm biased, as it's my temperament." He gestures towards a bowl in front of us. "Have a cherry."

At a crucial point in his career, just as he was taking up the appointment with the CBSO, Rattle made another move that his German critics may have trouble understanding but which may reveal something of his approach to the creative process; and also, perhaps, the sensitive character who is almost certainly finding the attacks in Berlin harder than he lets on. In 1980, Rattle took the best part of a year off to study literature at Oxford. "I didn't listen to music at all during term just to see if I could live without it," he remembers. "In some ways I was delighted to learn that I could, as long as there was something of equal weight to take its place."

Rattle went to St Anne's College, just after it admitted men for the first time. "I was in the second year of co-ed," he says. "In the first year there had been so few men that apparently it had been quite a traumatic experience for some. They'd tried to hide."

Apart from the friends made and the experience of life outside conducting, Rattle also found that immersion in a different art form brought something else to his music. "It helped me immeasurably," he says. "I always feel that any interpreter is on a lifelong scavenger hunt. You don't know when you'll use what you pick up, but it gave me a real addiction to metaphor and what it can do for interpretation. I've never kicked the habit - as legions of frustrated orchestral players will tell you!"

The humour fits with the lack of grandiloquence Rattle displays when explaining what music ultimately is to him. "I always had the feeling," he says softly, pausing frequently, "that beyond the sheer pleasure principle, the job of music was to express to people that they were not alone; that someone else had felt this, or was searching for an explanation to this. I still feel that, of all the arts, it is the most visceral, has the most direct access to the emotional bloodstream."

Reaching out to different groups, as he has done with the Turkish community in Berlin, is part of music's role. "But you don't just use the arts for accessibility, or whatever the buzz word may be. The arts are there to change people's lives, to bring people to a place where these types of emotions can be explored in depth and safety." He shrugs. "It's very difficult to explain coherently, which is probably why we're musicians in the first place."

Maybe Rattle's strength comes from his openness, his willingness not to have bold statements already worked out before he talks about his feelings on music. "I'm sometimes surprised," he says, "if I sit on my own shoulder and look at who I am and what I'm doing." But maybe this openness leaves him vulnerable. Later, I listen to our conversation again, particularly Rattle's comments about the Berlin row. "In a way, all you can do is play music to the best of your ability. You fail as well as you can." Then he adds: "For some people, you'll always fail."

I hope that's not a thought that strikes him too often. And whatever difficulties he is facing in Berlin, the response he will receive at the Proms should remind him, if he needs reminding, of one thing: we may have gladly bid adieu to the Spice Girls, but Simon Rattle is a prophet who remains honoured in his own country.

BBC Proms, to 9 September (020-7589 8212; www.bbc.co.uk/proms). Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic appear on 1 and 2 September

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