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Simon Rattle says his great goodbyes

Simon Rattle and the CBSO Birmingham Symphony Hall Amanda Roocroft, Olaf Bar Edinburgh Usher Hall Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra Edinburgh Usher Hall Proms
Nearly two decades ago, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra took a deep breath and appointed a tousle-haired 25-year-old as its conductor. He was likeable and hugely promising, no doubt about that. But in maestro terms he was a child. They called him "Baby" Rattle. People shook their heads and waited for disaster.

Last weekend, the baby - knighted, 43, and greying - finally said goodbye to Birmingham. Against all the odds, he's been there 18 years, and turned his job into the great success of modern British culture: a reproof to that provocative old question about whether conductors really make a difference. Rattle's chemistry coaxed a provincial orchestra into world- class performances. In the process, he supplied the leadership and inspiration that won his orchestra the finest concert hall in Britain. And to the world at large, he set a radiant example: an attitude to music-making that was fresh, idealistic, driven not by commerce or career-moves, but by a passion genuinely felt and followed through. These 18 years in Birmingham have made for a golden era of extraordinary, hands-on achievement (unlike many principal conductors, Rattle has been truly resident, delivering an awesome 934 performances). His repertoire has been enormous, covering the old (including the arrestingly brilliant, period-conscious Beethoven heard in the CBSO's Prom the other week), the curious, and the new (especially the British composers Judith Weir, Mark-Antony Turnage and Thomas Ades, with whom the CBSO has built special relationships). In fact, there's barely a department of music - with the notable exception of Tchaikovsky symphonies - to which Rattle hasn't led his orchestra with honour. And on Sunday night, the farewell concert was a grand summation of it all.

It started with some Ades: a symphonic poem called Asyla which, like most of the composer's scores to date, played like a sound-museum of collected curiosities - cleverly laid out and catalogued, from spangled orientalism to south London disco-beat. An ear-abluting opener. Then came a Rattle favourite, Mahler 2; and though we've heard this music from him many times before, it came across as boldly and provocatively as ever. Rattle is not a man to rest on his accumulated wisdom. This was fresh, inquisitive musicianship, with real ferocity in the repeated chords of the first movement. It was exhilarating, dangerous. And heard in the superb acoustic of Birmingham Symphony Hall, with immaculate singing from the CBSO chorus, it made for a classic send-off.

But the event was oddly low-key. I expected to find Symphony Hall en fete, alive with atmosphere. But there was nothing: not a speech, a banner, a balloon, a bunch of flowers. Only a small display-board in the foyer with a dozen photographs from Rattle's life and times: the sort of thing you'd throw together for the passing of a primary-school headmaster. When I asked them, the CBSO management said: "He didn't want a fuss." But Rattle deserved a fuss. And I suspect the reticence concealed a deep anxiety about the future. Rattle's going begs a question: what now? Will the orchestra slip back to provincial status? Can its new conductor, the little-known Sakari Oramo, ever hope to follow Rattle's act? It all looks desperately uncertain.

Rattle's own what-now makes for a far happier scenario. He can do what he likes, and will probably do it abroad. His closest orchestral relationships are with the Vienna Philharmonic (which doesn't appoint a music director) and the Berlin Philharmonic (which does, and the job is up for grabs in 2002). Berlin is very possible.

But there's a gathering lobby - led by the conductor John Carewe - trying to keep Rattle at home. The argument is that this country can't afford to lose its most dynamic force for musical good, and it should somehow lure him to London - where, as things stand, the working conditions aren't good enough to attract him. The lure would be a brand-new concert hall and brand-new orchestra. And if that sounds preposterous for a city already over-endowed with concert halls and orchestras, the fact is that none of London's big halls is anything to be proud of; and a new Rattle-led super-band might prove such a pull for players and audiences that Darwinian forces would overwhelm all competition, solving the problem of the orchestral glut at a stroke.

Whether there's any practical possibility in this idea I don't know, and if it happened, there would be a Culloden of artistic corpses littering the South Bank and the Barbican. But Rattle might be worth it.

Nothing at Edinburgh has been so momentous, and this last week of the Festival has been rather quiet - not least because the Fringe has packed up early (as it started early, this year) and the streets are almost empty. Tuesday's Usher Hall recital of the whole Wolf Spanish Liederbook - all 44 songs - was pretty empty too, despite the presence of big-name singers like Amanda Roocroft and Olaf Bar. The message there was clear enough: that the festival's current policy of block-programming single composers is not attractive, especially when the composer is someone like Wolf, whose output is exquisite, subtle, framed in an oblique harmonic idiom, and not exactly mass-market.

Bar and Roocroft looked distinctly lost and lonely in the vastness of the hall. They sang from scores. And neither singer was on top form. Roocroft was grandly operatic, sacrificing detail to a flowing sense of line. Bar characterised quite nicely what he sang, but had problems in sustaining tone and (sometimes) pitch. By far the most distinguished contribution to the evening was the wonderful accompaniment of Malcolm Martineau, who has been responsible for putting together the Festival's Wolf package and has played superbly throughout every concert I've attended.

It would have been nice if the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra had brought over some Sibelius for their Edinburgh residency this week. But as the Festival has already had the Chamber Orchestra of Europe doing a complete Sibelius symphony cycle, they were presumably told not to. Nor did they play any Nielsen, which was a pity, because that's something else they do well. Instead, we had Germanic programmes, starting with a Brahms Requiem. But the conductor, Jukka-Pekka Saraste, hadn't the control to register real impact in that trundling 36-bar fugue over a pedal-drone - which the 19th-century critic Hanslick likened to a train in a tunnel. This was not meant as a compliment. The fugal drone remains an area of controversy, and is described in Jan Swafford's new biography of Brahms (Macmillan) as the composer's "greatest miscalculation". I can only disagree. In powerful hands it builds a glorious momentum. But alas, not here. Bryn Terfel roared his solos like an Old Testament prophet (so much for the Brahms Requiem as a consolation for the living rather than a commendation of the dead), leaving his fellow-soloist Karita Mattila as the one person on the platform who seemed really to have the measure of the piece. She shone. And she shone again two nights later as the radiant, richly-textured soloist in Strauss's Four Last Songs, which Saraste conducted more effectively. I only wish he had a stronger woodwind section in his band.

'Best of Three' with Michael White: Radio 3, Saturday, 2pm.