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Rattle's downward roll

Manuel Brug feels that Sir Simon Rattle's novelty with the Berliner Philharmoniker is wearing off

We've grown used to him. The thrill is gone, has yielded to more pedestrian charms. We are well-acquainted with his dashing gestures, we've seen through his permanent expression of ecstasy, which has curdled into a mask in the meantime. We know his tricks and his mannerisms, know how he sashays up to the podium with a gently stooped gait. We know in advance when he is about to leap upward from the podium, can anticipate when he is about to tease out a climax from his players, or to deploy one of those pregnant, yet occasionally empty silences. When he is about to don a rigid smirk.

After four years, the Simon Rattle System is quite familiar. The British conductor and the 120 members of the Berliner Philharmoniker are no longer madly in love, but instead preoccupied with delivering top-notch musicianship, maintaining their reputations. In the meantime, we have learned that the fellow with the sunny disposition is human just like the rest of us. It was the same with Abbado after the initial "Hi, I'm Claudio" phase. The Italian conductor also had the good fortune to usher in a genuinely new era in the wake of the shambling Herbert von Karajan monolith.

© Berliner Philharminker© Berliner Philharmoniker

At the annual press conference today, Simon Rattle will be presenting his fifth Philharmonic season. And once again, we should not expect anything especially novel: a Haydn cycle, to be recorded with EMI; dancing, as usual, at the Arena; a couple of tours; a few conductor's debuts; plus a great deal that is familiar. Only a few new works. He will be conducting Brahms' 4th Symphony for the first time. Is that all?

Feeling good without pain. No real challenges, no genuinely expanded horizons. True, Simon Rattle has acquainted the Philharmoniker with early music performance practices, and he programs a good deal of French music, striving for maximum variety. He has tuned the orchestra's sound to greater transparency, but also allowed it to become slightly neutral. He inspires the general public with standardized soundbites and an educational program that flourishes thanks to Deutsche Bank. But he also induces mild despair in the experts by essentially failing to expand, blithely diversifying instead of specializing. For him, Berlin is always a bit like Birmingham. In working with this venerable orchestra, he neglects the great German symphonic tradition, in particular the works of Anton Bruckner. Nor does he set out for distant lands.

In his few concerts in Berlin with the Staatskapelle, Daniel Barenboim - who has evolved into the Mahatma Gandhi of music - cultivates a small, oft-repeated standard repertoire, perpetuating the celebrated golden German sound of bygone times. For a long time, Kent Nagano amused himself with oddball sandwich programs before making a powerful comeback by rescaling the symphonic heights. And Claudio Abbado, as highly-esteemed as ever, comes once every season to outdo Rattle in Mahler, on the latter's home territory. The competition, then, is not sleeping.

© Sheila Rock / EMI© Sheila Rock / EMI

Even Christian Thielemann conducted a Bruckner 5th Symphony two seasons ago (after much practice in Munich) about which the Philharmonic members are still talking. And then bored everyone more recently with a mindlessly streamlined and virtuosi "Heldenleben." Simon Rattle then conducted the same Strauss work: lusciously sonorous, adroitly effective, yet peculiarly hollow and monotonous because lacking in tension and cohesion. And this is increasingly the case for live concerts as well, for instance with Brahms' 2nd Symphony, or Schubert's Great C major Symphony that was so far from Furtwängler. Glorious and overwhelming music, yet devoid of penetration. The same is true for many recent CDs which Rattle has been privileged enough to release in a steady stream. The singular exception is Debussy. Here, Sir Simon has succeeded in locating a lucid airiness in the Philharmonic's sound.

And how do the Philharmonic members themselves see things? If you ask five of them, you will hear five different opinions, always hedged with qualifications and retractions, maybes and buts. To date, the art of discourse, of dialogue, has never been cultivated there, particularly when it comes to outsiders.

How could it have been otherwise? For many years, there was just the boss and the sound machine. Missing were the communicator, the mainstay, the general manager. You just kept your head down, sulking and grumbling. But now, once again, everything is supposed to be different. Pamela Rosenberg, now 61, begins today as the new managing director (more). Will she turn out to be a mediating figure capable of inserting a bit more harmony into this marriage? Can she supply the new impetus that Rattle evidently lacks, and which the orchestra itself is not prepared to provide? It would be about time. Up to this point, there has been no real crisis, but the signs are multiplying.


The article originally appeared in Die Welt on May 11, 2006.

Manuel Brug is music and dance critic for Die Welt.

Translation: Ian Pepper - let's talk european