Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Berliner Philharmoniker/Simon Rattle @ Usher Hall, Edinburgh

31 August 2006

British conductor Simon Rattle has been the focus of stern debate in Germany for a while now.

Problems started when leading German critic Manuel Brug entitled a newspaper article ‘Rattle’s downward roll’, criticising the conductor’s work with the Berliner Philharmoniker, and noting their lack of the passion that used to be their trademark.

An army rose to Rattle’s defence, including pianist Alfred Brendel and even members of the orchestra itself.

Only time will tell, but based on the Philharmoniker’s performance in Edinburgh on Thursday, both sides have a fair enough case.

Simon Rattle has long been considered one of the shining lights of the conducting world. His youthful vigour and obviously all-absorbing passion for music are matched by his desire to bring this music to as many as possible.

Yet on the basis of Thursday’s performance, Rattle’s conducting has become a caricature of itself. Some passages are elongated to breaking point; others are driven with manic intensity. The excitement of the performance is still there, but gone is an overall shape. Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, which took up the second half of the programme, was both thrilling and tiresome. It rambled sporadically from highlight to highlight, but never seemed to find itself amid Rattle’s plethora of ideas.

Rattle both relished the purity of sound in Mahler’s symphony and the sinister undertones of the work that are too often ignored. Threatening timpani growled beneath the soaring strings, melodic fragmentation was emphasised and the double basses were thunderous (although they could work on coordination). The third movement grew from the most restrained opening to the most heart-wrenching climax. The opening woodwind of the fourth sent a shiver of anticipation down the spine. So what was missing?

Part of the problem is that this once-superb orchestra is no longer great. It is very good of that there is no question but the edge has disappeared. Strings have lost bite. Woodwind also. Whether this is Rattle’s fault is debatable, but what is noticeable is a number of uncommitted performances among the players. Hopefully it is just fatigue (they are at the Proms over the next two nights), but the suspicion remains that a divide is emerging between players and maestro. Future concerts will confirm or reject this hypothesis.

For the meantime, we must take the playing as it comes, and in the first half we were witness to a commendable performance of Szymanowski‘s first violin concerto, performed by Frank Peter Zimmermann. His portamento was divine. His tone, forceful. Troublingly, an overuse of vibrato caused his pitch to oscillate a number of times, but this improved as the work progressed. Rattle’s interpretation of the score was persuasive the playing seemed a tad muted initially, but before the cadenza an orchestral tutti shocked in its intensity, and made sense of what had come before. The cadenza itself was the best thing in the performance Zimmermann’s double stopping was secure, as were his harmonics and the piece flew into its fantastical final gasps with total conviction. The encore of Bach was much appreciated.

Mahler Four, as mentioned above, was a mixed bag. The interpretation was often thrilling, but lacked a coherent structure. The playing was generally committed, but a number of inaccuracies (when the first violinist swapped to his second violin, had he forgotten to tune it first?) interfered. In the fourth movement, soprano Lisa Milne sang with gorgeous assurance. Her low range was occasionally dwarfed by the Philharmoniker’s forces, but the rustic quality she brought to certain passages (her upward leap on ‘Sankt Peter’, for example) suited the role.

It is deeply sad to think that the Berlin Philharmoniker is no longer consistently superb. Who is to blame will be decided by the German press long before the rest of us make up our minds, but in the meantime, the least we Brits can do is cheer our own conductor, Simon Rattle. He may have made mistakes with his Berlin orchestra, but he still stands as one of the greatest maestros of our age, and it was a privilege and a pleasure to watch him.

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