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Sir Simon Rattle and his Berlin Band

Berliner Philharmoniker/Sir Simon Rattle, 31 May 2018, Royal Festival Hall

Berliner Philharmoniker and Sir Simon Rattle. Credits: Monika Rittershaus

Of the most anticipated events of the 2017/2018 season, the farewell tour of Berliner Philharmoniker with Sir Simon Rattle who steps down from the post of their Principal Conductor, happened in two evenings – on 30 May and 31 May 2018. Both were almost sold out, despite the fact that prices for tickets were exceptionally high. There was an atmospere of anticipation, a feeling of a great event not to be missed, as everyone understood they will not see Rattle with this orchestra again, as he now moves his attention fully to London Symphony Orchestra, a resident of Barbican Centre. However, Rattle has been with this orchestra for 16 years (having been appointed in 2002), and both nights demonstrated how well individual players, particular instrumental sections and the conductor know each other and what a unique organic sound they have together as an orchestra as a result of that. The first evening featured a premiere of a short starter work '3 Pieces for Orchestra' by Hans Abrahamsen and then moved to almost an hour and a half of monumental Bruckner Symphony No.9 (with a finale of Samale, Mazucca, Philipps and Cohrs). The second evening also had an igniting starter premiere written specifially as a farewell piece for Rattle and Berlin Phil. 'Tanz auf dem Vulkan for orchestra' was composed by Jörg Wildmann who had been involved with Berlin Phil for many years and thus was an insider into their existence. Then the programme featured Lutosławski’s Symphony No.3, the first recipient of Grawemeyer Award in 1985, and finished with Symphony No. 1 by Brahms, thus showcasing the aptitude of the orchestra in music ranging from 19th to 21st century.

Sir Simon Rattle entering the stage for Wildmann's piece. Credits: Monika Rittershaus

The piece by Wildmann, although lasting only five minutes, made a real furore and was intended as such. In a theatrical fashion, the score scripts the appearance and disappearance of the conductor after the piece starts and before it ends. Thus, Simon Rattle appeared in the audience almost like a birthday man among due celebrations, strolling nonchalantly onto the stage and hiding his smile while being accompanied by a jazzy tune of the beginning. Wildmann does his best to bring out the colours of the orchestra in a very short stretch of music, and Rattle readily led Berlin Phil to a playful self-abandon in this piece requiring a wide range of percussion instruments (including a wind machine and a waterphone) and making some woodwind players blow into their instruments without producing sounds or use the swanee whistles instead. With its unexpected changes of style, rhythm and tempi – all within five minutes – the piece shows us how difficult a life of a conductor trying to lead such a big and unpredictable body of players could be. Indeed, the orchestra is always bound to erupt in a way a volcano would. It also showed how well-organized players can actually choose when they want their conductor in (and out), which is in a way a mini-statement as much on their professionalism as on their freedom, but also suggests that presence of Rattle on the podium is something they happily and voluntarily choose. The piece also showed that such controlled eruptions of sound run nothing short of spectacular and bring three sides involved (the conductor, the orchestra and the audience) to a level of joyful exaltation.

Berliner Philarmonic and Sir Simon Rattle. Credits: Monika Rittershaus

Interestingly, the next piece, Lutosławski’s Symphony No.3, premiered by Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Georg Solti in 1983 and already a classic, similarly explores the relative freedom of an orchestra from the conductor, as semi-independence of particular instrumental sections is an object of investigation for the composer here. In his use of ‘limited aleatorism’, a technique that by that time has become his trademark invention, Lutosławski explored the creation of a single work through unpredictability of polyphonic sections where instrumental groups enter into play at certain moments but play independently afterwards, existing in small islands of their own and not rhythmically dependent on other sections of the orchestra. I think this Symphony in particular revealed the ultimate strength of Simon Rattle’s approach, the ability to develop sections and movement) with intelligence, insight and clarity, while also having a bigger idea of the work’s progression always in view. The first part of the Symphony was keeping a listener on edge – so gentle, so almost impercetible was the inclusion of new instrumental sections into the body of sound, while the amplitudes of dynamics were unpredictable, pregnant with silences and meditative episodes and then erupting to fortes. These changes made us feel as though we were travelling through a cave that could either narrow down to a dark tunnel or expand to a translucent lake that stood still and was surrounded by masses of air.

After peformance of Lutosławski’s Symphony No.3. Credits: Monika Rittershaus

This Symphony demonstrated the existing bond between the conductor and the orchestra, and the flow of their understanding by some kind of reading of the minds to the fullest, though now (compared to Wildmann’s piece) in a new way. Conducting without a stick, Rattle did not always ‘guard’ the overall rhythms, but rather took control of general sound dynamics with his body, eye movements and turns towards particular sections, marking only certain periods where sections had to be coordinated. He made it seem that only gradually, as the Symphony progressed to its second part, Rattle gently took the orchestra under his command and led it effectively to the finale, while actually its most exquisite moments happened indeed in its meditative, multi-sectional, aleatoric first part. Somehow this Symphony that is as beautiful as it is innovative and modern in its new way of sound creation, left the silences and space needed for the Royal Festival Hall audiences to suddenly have a feeling of togetherness. A tinge of delight caused by the sheer fact of being there and intently listening to the sounds of Lutosławski ran through my mind and heart then. They were comparable to the pleasure of drinking cold water after a long summer walk, tinged with the realisation of unity with others in this active attentiveness of listening. A unique sensation, indeed.

And finally, after an interval, a more conventional orchestral work from the 19th century tradition (and Rattle obviously likes to play those, as well), Brahms’s Symphony No 1, came on. In order to listen to it closely and to observe Rattle conduct I moved to the choir of the Royal Festival Hall, where my friend, a young American composer studying at Oxford, was already sitting. This place divides people into its haters and lovers, as some think that acoustics are worse there, while some afficionados would only go to a concert if they can position themselves there, but somehow it is where all enthusiasts are usually sat, and that is why post-concert conversations sparkle easily. It was nice to spot Sarah Willis in the orchestral horn section, as she in fact interviewed Simon Rattle a few months ago, using twitter and facebook to prepare questions from the audience for him. Somehow, as the evening was designed to highlight his relationship with his former orchestra, it was the persona of Rattle and his existence on the podium that drew all my attention from this position.

Sir Simon Rattle conducting Berliner Philharmoniker. Credits: Monika Rittershaus

I have an intuitive theory that every person’s inner character could be read from the timbre of their voice and their physical style of talking, so that you could always detect inner complexes or uncertainties or other idiosyncracies in a human voice and know immediately something really important, impossible to be concealed, about this individual. This is why some audiobooks are impossible to listen to, as the persona of the reader invades and overpowers the text with its energy. Thus, in a Maeterlinckian way, it is enough just to hear a person speak at length to know more about him than your intellect or conscience or other ‘normal’ factors could convey in months. The same is true, it seems, for seeing someone conduct. Now, with some experience of sitting in the choir of the Royal Festival Hall, I could testify to the fact that this is a place where conductors’ characters could be read indeed. Simon Rattle comes across as someone gentle, clever, attentive, good-humoured, able to care and to think about all players with equal depth and interest, deeply passionate about music that comes from the orchestra towards him, and with the sense of perspective that allows him to keep in mind the overarching structure of the piece he is conducting.

After peformance of Lutosławski’s Symphony No.3. Credits: Monika Rittershaus

When it was Symphony No 1 by Brahms, Rattle did not need the score to lead Berliner Philharmonik through it. He carefully crafted each of the movements from powerful Allegro to gentle Andante sostenuto to Alegrette e grazioso and then to the fourth movement which is a combination of four, starting from adagio and finishing in allegro. The symphony took Brahms 21 years to finish, and, as though aware of the monumentality of the project, Rattle treated all its elements, all instrumental colours and ideas with due respect and attention, bringing forth the forces of his orchestra, especially the strings. May be, in a very Rattle way, he was too attentive and gentle with the sounds flowing from the orchestra towards him to create a feeling of once-in-a-lifetime suspence and physical energy, and at some point the sense of acute delight and poignancy built up during the performance of Lutosławski's Symphony was diluted into hearing a predictable orchestral flow. This journey reminded me of a walk through a plateau that offers a landscape view of the nearby summits where you can observe the monumentality of mountains while never really having to physically climb them. An uproar of applause in the end was quite contagious, though, and exposed the high spiritis of everyone present in the audience of Royal Festival Hall on that evening.

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