(Simon Rattle and Berlin Philharmonic)

Chetana Nagavajara

Berlin, 17 September 2014

At the end of the concert given by one of Berlin’s “resident” orchestras, the Berlin Philharmonic, on Thursday, 18 September 2014, the audience gave a long standing ovation. The piece they had just played was Brahms’ Symphony No. 1, which Sir Simon Rattle conducted from memory. He was called back onto the stage many times. I did notice something worth commented upon. Simon Rattle did not show any sign of being enamoured with the applause he was receiving: he stayed on stage each time only for a (very) short while, made his bow politely, and then left. Suddenly, something just clicked in my head, and I exclaimed to myself, “Klemperer!” Yes, Otto Klemperer (1885-1973), whose “Indian summer” was associated with the British Philharmonia Orchestra, culminating in those unforgettable recordings of Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, Haydn and others, that had set the standard for the performance, interpretation and also recording of the classics of classical music. In a famous interview on BBC television, Klemperer did not hesitate to comment on his fellow conductors. On Herbert von Karajan, Klemperer bluntly asked, “Why is he so addicted to applause?” That interview was published and became a kind of canonical reference treasured by musicians and music lovers, because it contains rare information and honest judgments from “one of the world’s greatest conductors ever.” (I am quoting here the violinist Nathan Milstein: 1904-1992.) The British were grateful to him on many counts. When Walter Legge, the eminent impresario and above all, recording expert asked him to become “Conductor-for-Life” of the Philharmonia, he accepted the invitation. When Walter Legge arbitrarily decided to disband the Philharmonia and the musicians themselves refused to let the orchestra die, Klemperer accepted the musicians’ request to become the president of the New Philharmonia Orchestra, and together they went on to give superlative performances and recordings. After Klemperer’s death, the Orchestra survived very well, and I celebrated their determination, dedication and musicianship in my review of their Berlin concert from the year 2013 under the title in Thai (playing on the triple meaning of the sound of the word “kha”), which can be translated as, “You can’t kill me; I’m alive; things of value don’t die: On the Philharmonia of London”.


(Otto Klemperer)

It has been necessary for me to indulge in such a long disgression. Recently, Simon Rattle gave an interview on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of Karajan’s death, and he deftly distanced himself from the German maestro. Of course, he knew of Klemperer’s criticism, and more than that, being a British musician, he must have fed himself on those EMI recordings, including certainly the one of Brahms No. 1, recorded in 1956-57. I too, while a student in England, bought that recording around 1958-59 and listened to it again and again for many years. When I exclaimed “Klemperer” at the end of the concert, I knew intuitively that I had had the good fortune of being familiar with a great performance (though on record) in the same way as the current Music Director of the Berlin Philharmonic. The Berlin performance was not an exact replica of the Klemperer recording and could not have been. But the general approach, the grandeur and nobility, the attention to the structure and not to the details, the turning away from the mere creation of beautiful sound, this was a different Simon Rattle from the one I had heard a decade ago when he first came to Berlin – as a successor to Karajan (though not immediate). He had got wiser over the years and now knew whom he should emulate. The trouble at this concert was that he was not very much himself, but had become a too docile disciple of a great master whom he must have immensely admired in his youth. Incidentally, why did he make the timpanist play so loud? Let’s go back to the Klemperer recording: there it was loud too. Was it KlempereOttor’s intention or was it Walter Legge’s additional manipulation by way of moving the microphone nearer to the timpanist? Yet, Klemperer had no objection. A recording is a recording; it can never match a real performance.

I had to laugh when reading the short review (it has to be short, because all newspapers give less and less space to cultural matters) in the Berlin newspaper Tagesspiegel. How could these Teutonic musical magistrates have known what had happened in the UK 40-50 years ago? The critic was chastising Rattle for being too drab and indifferent. It was nothing of the sort; it was a style of playing that you don’t usually associate with Simon Rattle (with his curly white hair)? This time he was not doing enough to promote the Berlin Phil’s and his own “branding”. The Senate of Berlin had invested so much money to pay for the best musicians and Rattle did not bother to caress them by way of (over)phrasing as he used to do. The British press has been suggesting that he should return home. The post of Chief Conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra is to become vacant in less than 2 years, and Rattle would fit perfectly into that role. (But his contract with the Berlin Philharmonic does not expire until 2018, though Rattle had expressed the wish not to have it renewed. These star conductors do plan ahead very long, don’t they? They love to gamble on longevity, but among the conductors, Rattle is still relatively young: he is only 59.) The German critic was getting too impatient, perhaps feeling snubbed by Rattle’s (imminent?) departure in 4 years’ time – lack of loyalty, that’s it!

Having heard the Israel Philharmonic doing Brahms I under Zubin Mehta on Sanam Luang, I welcome Rattle’s change of heart (or rather change of attitude to music altogether) by harking back to some model he has always held in high esteem. The change or lack of originality in this particular case will have to be stomached. Moving from Karajan (perhaps not in terms of music, but in terms of PR in accordance with Berlin’s cultural policy) to Klemperer is not a bad strategy. Well, Mehta has originality of the kind that he exhibited on Sanam Luang and does not need any role model, beyond his own ego. If this one concert can give an inkling of Rattle’s changing direction, the British should have the right to say out loud, “Welcome home, Simon!”

If I have deliberately refrained from going into detail about the performance of Brahms I, I cannot do the same with that of Schumann’s First Symphony in the first half of the concert. There were problems of various kinds that stood in the way of a good performance. First, it had to do with Rattle’s oversimplified notion of historical practice. He thought that reducing the size of the orchestra to that of an orchestra originally used for playing Schumann’s works would do the trick. Yes, you can reduce the number of the players, but you have to do other things besides, which the London Symphony Orchestra under the John Eliot Gardiner did with great success on 14 September 2014 in this very same Philharmonie. Twenty years ago, I heard the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra under guest conductor Kurt Masur (then Chief Conductor of the Gewandhaus Leipzig, the orchestra associated with Schumann and Mendelssohn), and the full complement of that orchestra gave a very impressive rendering of Schumann without having to reduce its size. So it is a question of style that a conductor must try to recreate, in full consciousness of the historical roots and at the same time of the nature of our own contemporary audience.

Second, there is no great model to fall back on. The great conductors of the past paid little attention to Schumann, and Mahler added insult to injury by rescoring his symphonies. Well, the 20th century did great service by proving that Schumann had his own way of writing symphonies and the authentic version could sound great. Audience in the 21st century is naturally reaping benefit from these pioneering restorative efforts. I admire the scholar- conductors like Gardiner and Harnoncourt who, through actual performances, vindicate the fact alongside Beethoven there was Schubert and that between Beethoven and Brahms, there was the Leipzig School which cannot be too easily dismissed. Simon Rattle has been involved in these “historical” movements too, especially with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. But let’s admit it. He has not reflected deeply enough on Schumann I, which, from our perspective, is harder to tackle than the other 3 symphonies.

Please allow me to weave in my own experience as an amateur musician. However mediocre I may have been as an amateur violinist, I had a go at joining the second orchestra of my British university in 1959, and one of the works we played was Schumann’s First Symphony. Of course, I played the second violin, and mind you, the composer did not overlook us second fiddles at all and did give us difficult work to do, especially in the slow movement. The conductor was a student, doing a degree in musicology (the university, being an academic institution and not a conservatory, offered no degree in performance), but he had been Leader of the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, and was definitely also s good orchestral conductor, because he knew how to teach us to play. So I got to know Schumann I from the inside after about 6 rehearsals and one public performance (at a secondary school!) Looking back half a century, that young man had a concept: this is a “spring symphony” and you have to make use of it to enjoy yourselves. Never mind about the mistakes: you are a second-(rate) orchestra and are bound to make mistakes, but get the mood right.

Simon Rattle was trying to conduct too much. The Berlin Phil is a professional orchestra of the first order and should be allowed room to be themselves and to enjoy themselves. Not knowing the work so well, certainly not as well as Brahms I, the orchestra lacked confidence. One danger of a professional orchestra playing under famous conductors is that they wait to be conducted. In this particular case, I guess that Simon Rattle himself had not formulated a clear concept of his own for this symphony, and one draw-back – I am not happy having to make this remark – came from his getting immersed far too much and for very extended periods with Mahler, the man who thought he knew how to improve Schumann. Rattle, perhaps inadvertently, tried to make Schumann’s work as grandiose as Mahler’s, and thereby contradicted himself with the reduction of the size of the orchestra. The fanfare at the beginning of the symphony sounded too pompous, as if to announce the entry of an emperor, whereas its function is to announce the arrival of spring. The slow movement that follows carries the melodies that could melt your heart, on condition that the music flows. On 18 September 14, the music did not quite flow, simply because Simon Rattle had a habit of being too emphatic with his beats. (With my inward eye, I could visualize how Claudio Abbado would have dealt with this movement with his graceful bâton in the right hand and the expressive movement of his left hand.) The third movement, a scherzo, marked “Molto vivace”, drove us amateur musicians in 1959 into a feast of sprightly rhythms, and we probably played much faster than the metronome prescription in the score. But we enjoyed playing immensely. Strangely enough, the super-professionals that constituted the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, were made to play almost mechanically and did not seem to be themselves. When the last movement came, it was too late to redeem anything. There was no rapport between the conductor and the orchestra, and between the sections of the orchestra itself. It sounded like an underrehearsed orchestra, which could hardly have been the case. This is Berlin, not London where they sometimes have time (and money) for just ONE rehearsal, and some genial conductors can still manage with that kind of economy. I did notice that this evening most heads the sections were young (the BPO being such a large pool of musicians that enable them to take turns). Even the Concertmaster looked very young. I did not see the Japanese Concertmaster who, with the cooperation of his “generation” of players, might have been able to save the situation. I had never experienced the Berlin Philharmonic in such a bad shape. The musicians just did not listen to each other, lacked concentration and were not quite together at various points. We tend to treat orchestras as though they were an assemblage of mechanical parts. They can have their off-days too. Individually yes, but collectively, unbelievable for an orchestra like the BPO! Shall we put the blame on the conductor and conclude that it was his off-day?” But Brahms I radiated with vivacity and dignity. I have no money and no time to attend all the four concerts with all the Schumann and all the Brahms Symphonies, and would hesitate to pronounce the verdict that Schumann is not Sir Simon Rattle’s strong point.

There is mystery in music as well as in music-making. We are all human beings and we have our ups and downs. Not being able to explain satisfactorily why things go wrong in a concert makes a critic humble. Humility can be a virtue.


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