Sir Simon Rattle: Time for Britain's greatest living conductor to face the music?

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The Independent Online

This September, Sir Simon Rattle will perform at the BBC Proms at the head of arguably the greatest symphony orchestra in the world. For the past two years, Rattle has been principal conductor and artistic director of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, and such is their combined lure that seats for the two concerts are already hard to come by, despite the presence on the programme of such difficult, challenging works as Schoenberg's Variations for Orchestra, and the last significant offering of the French composer Olivier Messiaen, Eclairs sur l'Au-Dela.

This September, Sir Simon Rattle will perform at the BBC Proms at the head of arguably the greatest symphony orchestra in the world. For the past two years, Rattle has been principal conductor and artistic director of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, and such is their combined lure that seats for the two concerts are already hard to come by, despite the presence on the programme of such difficult, challenging works as Schoenberg's Variations for Orchestra, and the last significant offering of the French composer Olivier Messiaen, Eclairs sur l'Au-Dela.

It is a typical Rattle mix, the avant garde sugared with uncontentious masterpieces, in this case Beethoven's Ninth and Debussy's La Mer. It's a trick he mastered 25 years ago while in charge of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, and it's one he's been playing with astounding success ever since.

With the death last week of the mysterious Carlos Kleiber, Rattle edges ever closer to the crown of "world's greatest living conductor", his only rivals to the title being the Latvian Mariss Jansons and Rattle's Italian predecessor in Berlin, Claudio Abbado. Both are considerably older and both have had health problems. Yet it is not Rattle's eminence as a conductor and his remarkable ability to bring the art to the widest possible audience that have gained him the attention of the media, but his love life.

This week, it was reported that 49-year-old Rattle had left his wife of the past eight years, the American writer Candace Allen - Lady Rattle - for the glamorous 31-year-old Czech mezzo Magdalena Kozena who is being groomed for stardom by the Deutsche Grammophon label. It seems odd that he has hooked up with a singer again: he blamed the failure of his first marriage to the American soprano Elise Ross, with whom he has two children, on their stressful, incompatible schedules. He met Kozena last June, apparently, while performing Mozart's Idomeneo at Glyndebourne. She has said, of their working relationship at least, that "this is heaven".

But facing the music will be less than heavenly for the media-averse Rattle. "It's a disaster for him," says Helen Wallace, consultant editor of BBC Music Magazine. "He'll now get press attention and that's what he really dislikes. He's never flirted with the press, and hates the media." He deserves better.

Rattle is, along with the painter Lucian Freud and the poet Geoffrey Hill, one of the very few world-class artists Britain possesses. According to Wallace, his peers "Harnoncourt, Abbado, Barenboim are all brilliant conductors, but they don't do the different things Rattle does. He takes people into areas they would never normally enter".

Simon Dennis Rattle, born in Liverpool in 1955, found his vocation early. Enthused by his middle-class, music-loving family, he became a gifted percussionist, but took up the baton at the age of 11 after witnessing a performance of Mahler's massive Second Symphony - later to become a signature piece - conducted by George Hurst. "That was it," says Rattle. "That is where the seed was sown." He has done little but conduct ever since.

Precocious and brilliant, he soon took charge of the Merseyside Youth Orchestra, performing Stravinsky's Rite of Spring alongside other modernist masterpieces by Bartok, Janacek and Britten. In 1974, he won the John Player Conducting Competition in Bournemouth, which resulted in ties with the local symphony orchestra, as well as freelance work with the Philharmonia, and contemporary music groups such as the London Sinfonietta.

But it was in Birmingham that he made his name. The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra was a becalmed institution when Rattle arrived in 1980, lured by the orchestra's manager, Ed Smith, an old Liverpool acquaintance. Rattle, like a pied piper, restored the cultural health of a city plagued by petty provincialism.

The key to his success, in addition to his effect on the orchestra's playing, was his daring programming. He would combine the hazy popular pastoralism of a piece like Vaughan Williams's Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis with Wagner's Siegfried Idyll, and follow it up with one of Schoenberg's bold sonic experiments. What's more, Rattle put the Vaughan Williams first on the programme, daring the audience to walk out during the interval. Few did. Instead, they signed up en masse to subscription seasons. Tickets became ever rarer, and the city ever prouder of its adopted son.

Two other factors helped to raise Rattle's profile during his time with the CBSO. One was the boom in classical CD sales which followed the unveiling of the new format in the 1980s, as classical music obsessives, seduced by the strikingly superior sound quality of CDs, replaced their old LP recordings.

Rattle became a recording star with EMI, noted in particular for his performances of Mahler. As a consequence of Rattle's championing, Mahler became a hugely fashionable composer. It was virtually impossible to attend an orchestral concert at that time which didn't contain a Mahler symphony or song-cycle, and Rattle's disc of the Second Symphony with the CBSO and Dame Janet Baker swept the awards. It was the work with which, in 1991, Rattle opened Birmingham's spectacular, acoustically wonderful Symphony Hall.

Rattle spent 18 years in Birmingham, though he was never short of guest appointments. He built up a close relationship with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, became guest conductor at Rotterdam, and was once tipped for the top job in Philadelphia. He turned his hand to period performance with the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment. His Covent Garden debut with Janacek's The Cunning Little Vixen was widely praised.

But it is with the music of Wagner that Rattle's true greatness may lie. He is planning his first Ring Cycle for Aix-en-Provence. Anticipation is high, and justifiably so. His 2001 Covent Garden performance of Wagner's valedictory opera Parsifal, despite an indifferent production, was one of the most sublime musical events of recent years, displaying complete mastery of the strange, sickly score. The audience left the House on those dark December nights in silence, as if sedated by the beauty of Rattle's reading.

He took up his position in Berlin in 2002, three years after his election by the players who preferred him to the venerable Daniel Barenboim. Rattle was 44 when elected, a remarkably youthful age in a profession where practitioners carry on until they drop. A man from " das land öhne musik" had become the guardian of Germany's unsurpassed musical tradition, a Scouser in the shoes of Furtwängler and Karajan.

He performed his first concert as head of the BPO on 7 September 2002, the programme pure Rattle: Mahler 5 mixing it with Asyla, a noisy, energetic composition by the British wunderkind Thomas Ades, which paraded the influence of electronic dance music.

In addition to Ades, Rattle's commitment to contemporary music has seen him encourage numerous young composers, including the heavily jazz-influenced Mark-Anthony Turnage (though many are baffled by his support for the frankly mediocre Nicholas Maw; Rattle's performances at Covent Garden of Maw's opera Sophie's Choice were not a career high).

Inevitably, considering the prominence of his position, Rattle has had his critics in Berlin, though the £500,000 salary he receives from the city probably helps cushion the blows. His greatest foe has proved to be Axel Bruggemann, a critic with the newspaper Welt am Sonntag, who, in an article headed "Simon von Rattle", accused the conductor of being "too dictatorial" (probably the first time the charge has been made by a German of a Briton), of rehearsing the musicians too much (Abbado was widely criticised for under-rehearsing them), and of putting the orchestra on autopilot. "While Rattle romps expressively on the podium," Bruggemann writes, "the Philharmonic musicians sometimes tend to play as if they were a wife reaching to the fridge to get a beer for her husband." Ironically, in view of later events, he described the relationship between conductor and band as "a marriage that is not working out".

Rattle, soon after taking up the new position, brought his Berliners to London, for a celebratory concert at the Royal Festival Hall, attended by the great and good and David Mellor. Never substantial of physique, Rattle appeared very thin, his legs like pipe-cleaners, his postures demonic and angular, reminding one of the famous silhouettes of his hero Mahler conducting. He seemed more compelling and charismatic than ever.

He opened with a performance of Schoenberg's Verklarte Nacht, an old Rattle favourite, and there seemed a stark contrast between the effortless glide of the strings, and Rattle's supercharged demeanour, topped by a now grey mass of curly hair, the "feuerkopf", firehead, as the Germans have it. Yet the revered Karajan famously conducted the same band with his eyes closed.

The worst of the criticism seems to have passed, and most German concert- goers seem pleased with their new man, backing him in his funding battles with the city fathers, his educational outreach programmes, seduced by the same qualities that brought him fame and affection in Britain. John Carewe, his teacher and mentor, insists that "wherever he goes, he changes things for the better". It's an opinion widely held.

"He's at his peak now," says Wallace. "He's doing the things he wants to do, still pushing forward, and never toadying to popular taste. He continues to produce difficult programmes, not always that attractive, but highly unusual and unconventional."

Perhaps all that is lacking from Rattle's CV is one truly classic recording, a benchmark account of a major work. Think of Carlos Kleiber's recording of Beethoven's Fifth on DG, Furtwängler's 1955 account of the Ninth, Klemperer's Eroica. Rattle's recent cycle of Beethoven symphonies with the Vienna Philharmonic fell short of this mark. But there is time. Such a recording - Parsifal, perhaps - will suffice to call him great, his personal life left just as a sideshow.

A LIFE IN BRIEF

Born: 19 January 1955 in Liverpool.

Family: Married first to US soprano Elise Ross in 1980 (divorced 1995), two children, Sasha 20, Eliot 14; second marriage to Candace Allen, in 1996.

Career: Asst conductor, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, 1977-80; principal conductor and artistic adviser, City of Birmingham SO, 1980--90; music director, CBSO, 1990--98; chief conductor and artistic director, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, since 2002.

Honours:: CBE in 1987; knighted in 1994.

He says...: "My only interest is in sharing great music with more and more people."

They say...: "Simon Rattle is a twat and his music is boring." Dinos Chapman, after Rattle labelled modern British art "bullshit".

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