Why I walked out of the Berlin Philharmonic Prom

Why I walked out of the Berlin Philharmonic Prom


norman lebrecht

September 07, 2014

A leading member of London’s music community (who requests anonymity) has posted this notice:

Tonight I walked out of my first Prom, paradoxically given by some of the greatest musicians in the world: the Berlin Phil/Rattle.

It was not the ludicrous production by (Peter) Sellars: I can cope with the Evangelist snogging the main soloists.

It was the completely misconceived musical interpretation by Rattle, a musician I have up to now admired. He had no idea about the music and its purpose. It was only a soundtrack to a production where Jesus seemed to be a bit part.

The great Christian Gerhaher remained aloof and unkissed (don’t know what happened in Part 2). Rattle seemed to have no feeling for the hymns (or anything else), especially the chorale prelude at the end of the first part. (The chorus had already fled to the flies by then).

There was no sense of the numinous or the profound. I wanted to leave after about bar 13 of the opening chorus. The inner parts of the orchestra sleek and velvety, like a Mercedes driving over the rutted cart-tracks of 18th-century Leipzig, Bach’s world and autograph manuscript. A shameful night.

rattle Berlin Philharmonic Prom 64_CR_BBC Chris Christodoulou_3

 photo (c) Chris Christodoulou/Lebrecht Music&Arts



  • Halldor says:

    A lot of people out there determined to dislike everything Rattle does – always have been. Likewise a lot of people with very peculiar ideas about Bach performance in general and the Passions in particular. Will be interesting to see the broader critical consensus.

  • Peter Freeman says:

    A pedantic (?) observation, since authenticity appears to be at issue: the venue has no “flies”.

  • Ellie says:

    I, too, felt like walking out about five minutes into the performance! I am so glad to see that someone else felt the same way. I couldn’t, because I was halfway down a row. Also, I don’t have 68 pounds to throw away like that.

  • Ellie says:

    By the way, it’s not the case that I feel ‘determined to dislike everything Rattle does’; Prom 64 (the Berlin Phil’s Prom on the previous day) was, paradoxically, the most beautiful performance that I have ever attended.

  • David Forder says:

    I can’t, as a Radio 3 listener, comment on the visual effects. The performance that I heard was a great disappointment. Periods of clumping feet as presumably the protagonists were moving about the stage. Mark Padmore’s Evangelist was, as always, peerless but Christian Gerhaher, of whom I am a great fan, seemed lost. Orchestral playing ok. The chorus was a disaster. The impression I was left with was that there were too many of them. It could have been the positioning of microphones I suppose but the articulation of the words was ‘mushy’. One quick example got to ‘Listen Again’ and hear “Sind Blitze, sind Donner in Wolken verschwunden?”
    It may have been ‘revelatory’, a description I have heard twice, to those present in the Albert Hall but was lost on my wife and I at home.

  • david wilson-johnson says:

    I entirely agree with your first critic…and am not ashamed to add my name to what my ears and experience of the piece told me last night , listening at home in Amsterdam…I was not in the hall so couldnt appreciate the staging, but from a musical point of view I was appalled. I dearly love and admire Simon, and what he has achieved and continues to achieve , and have enjoyed many happy musical collaborations with him since our student days, but this take on the Matthaus was verging on the bonkers.
    It was the best argument yet for performance at a lower baroque pitch. All the singers sounded overstretched, the chorus sopranos especially having difficulty at maintaining any sense of pitch, and the fast tempi adopted just didnt allow for any of the counterpoint to be heard. Lightnings and thunders were laughable, the final chorale in part one perfunctory and I felt short changed and horrified to hear the greatest of musical masterpieces being so wilfully allowed to fall apart live on air……Maybe it was just a bad night for everyone, or simply a bad idea to entrust the piece to such a soulless team….In the end I just felt sorry for everyone involved…and that is not usually the enduring sentiment on hearing this glorious piece.

    • sdReader says:

      Matthew Passion / Berlin Phil / Rattle – in Salzburg 4 1/2 years ago was brilliant. And I’m not a Rattle fan. Either the interpretation has changed or the RAH is unsuited to Bach.

    • Michael Schaffer says:

      david wilson-johnson says:
      It was the best argument yet for performance at a lower baroque pitch. All the singers sounded overstretched, the chorus sopranos especially having difficulty at maintaining any sense of pitch

      That doesn’t have anything to do with modern pitch though, except maybe when it comes to the very highest notes – maybe. But not necessarily.

  • Anonymus says:

    There might be a problem with transporting an interpretation that was conceived in the clarity of the Circus Karajani that is the Berlin Philharmonie to the Circus Maximus that is the Royal Albert Hall.

    I have heard many interpretations of this Bach passion live and on record, the interpretation Rattle et al pulled off in Berlin is a very valid and relevant one. Of course that’s not possible for the ideological crowd out there, that can only have the black and blue ink put into sound in one and only one way their theories dictate. Authentic? To their (holy) book, certainly. Music? Probably not.

    I’d say if you have to even walk out on an certainly debatable but nevertheless interesting interpretation like Rattle’s, then that says a lot about you, nothing about Rattle.

    • JACK BURT says:

      I agree completely with Anonymus…and would like to add: Mr. Padmore (who everyone praises) must believe there is something “valid” (not a concept I accept freely…) in the Sellars /Rattle conception. After all, he has committed to multiple performances of this St. Matthew and the St John as well, over a period of year since 2010. Surely if he thought it was as atrocious of a concept that these commentators seem to be convinced it is he would have found a way out…yet here he is: in Berlin, London, Lucerne and New York.

      I have seen the Berlin performance on DVD and I think it is one of the most revelatory performances of any piece I have ever seen. As a musician, I find the commitment of all the forces concerned remarkable. I have know the piece for 30 years… Is everything to my taste? No. Does it sometimes go to far? Yes? But so much of it is beautiful, heartfelt and honest. I am grateful that it exists.

      Certainly the London hall could have just been the wrong place to try this. No doubt it was conceived with the Philharmonie in mind. It might have been unwise to try to take it on the road. Not having been there, I can’t comment

      I am thankful however, that Sellars and Rattle have shown such commitment to one of my favorite pieces, and one of the greatest pieces of western music.

      • John E says:

        I have known the piece for 50 years (I started very young) and I agree about the impact of the Berlin DVD (the day after I watched it I couldn’t stop talking about it to everyone I met). I listened to the radio broadcast of the Prom with a good idea about what kind of staging was being attempted in what kind of venue, and I thought it sounded OK in the circumstances. I can also see why a lot of people reacted negatively. It seems to be in Peter Sellars’ nature to design productions that produce strong pro- and anti- reactions in audiences. My own nomination for most revelatory performance of any piece is actually the Jonathan Miller production of the St Matthew Passion, as staged by the National Theatre three years ago. I really wish the BBC would unearth their television recording of an earlier staging of his version and put it out on DVD (or at least re-broadcast it).

  • Robert says:

    From my best friend who was in the Arena prom mine:
    This was such a disappointment afternoon the Berlin Phil’s stunning Prom on Friday (Rachamninov and Stravinsky). Bach does not need a ‘production’ because the music speaks so eloquently for itself. The orchestra played beautifully and Mark Padmore was peerless as always , but there was too much chorus movement and this looked a mess and detracted form the main thing which is of course the music and the drama within it. What a pity.

  • John Borstlap says:

    “Bach does not need a ‘production’ because the music speaks so eloquently for itself.” Amen to that.

    And Rattle is a very good but not a great conductor. Not a matter of talent but of personality.

    • Michael Schaffer says:

      John Borstlap says:
      And Rattle is a very good but not a great conductor. Not a matter of talent but of personality.

      And what are the criteria on which you judge the personality of a musician to decide whether he/she is “great” or merely “very good”?

      • John Borstlap says:

        Such criteria cannot be scientifically fixed because they are psychological and aesthetic (including strongly subjective factors), which does not mean that they cannot hold some objective truth. But you can get the idea by comparison. A great conductor is capable of emanating an intense musical ‘radiation’ which gives the impression of experiencing the ‘voice’ of the composer in a most direct way, and where all technique and conscious structuring – all the preparations that go into a performance – fall into place seemingly effortlessly, thereby disappearing from the listening experience. Bruno Walter, H v Karajan (unpleasant man but great musician), Böhm (notorious nazi, but…), Szell (authoritarian but…), Mariss Jansons, Barenboim (too much ego, but…), Thielemann (too earthy, but….), Jaap van Zweden, Libor Pesek (alas, not so often heard any more), Blomstedt… and some others. These are great conductors and what they have in common is this unfathomable, often peculiarly individual personality i.e. subjectivity which, paradoxically, makes the music in their hands live objectively, as breathing an immediate life, as if the music is being improvised on the spot. With conductors just under this level, still really very good, you feel (most of the time) some conscious willpower, some over-consciousness to get things just so, the feeling of inhibition, too much rationality which, together with their great musical talent, has to compensate for the lack of individuality and irrational subjecitivy. If you read Bruno Walter’s reminiscences about Mahler, you will find there the most beautiful and precise description of what makes a great conductor, clothed in poetic, mimetic language, but very much to the point (Bruno Walter: ‘Gustav Mahler – Ein Porträt’, 1957).

        I remember a Mahler IV by Rattle with the Berlin Phil which was very stiff and quasi-classical, and you got the strong feeling that he did not ‘get’ the music at all, the necessary ‘Geschmeidigkeit’ that such piece needs to get it across. And many other examples. His affected smile while conducting also betrays the artificiality of his music-making… It’s a grin, not a smile. But I heard a Brahms IV which was again OK, oldfashioned pumped-up grandeur, but again, that is not so difficult with that piece. Another example of a good but not great conductor is Edo de Waart: I heard him once conducting Das Lied von der Erde in which he ‘drew’ all rhythmic complications ( 2 against 3 etc.) extensively in the air, and all just under tempo, so that the singers (with soprano Jessy Norman, no less) almost died with keeping their breath, and the whole performance giving the impression of music put together from odd bits, like a Frankenstein monster, it did not cohere. There is – under the surface of the music i.e. the notes in the score – an entire layer of mysterious life which cannot be treated rationally. Great conductors understand this instinctively because they have the inner connection to these layers. ‘The most important thing is not in the notes!’ (Mahler)

        • Michael Schaffer says:

          John Borstlap says:
          September 14, 2014 at 11:50 pm

          Such criteria cannot be scientifically fixed because they are psychological and aesthetic (including strongly subjective factors), which does not mean that they cannot hold some objective truth.

          That there are musicians, or more specifically in this context, conductors who can/could somehow transcend the level of being competent and very good at what they are doing and produce unusually good, hence “outstanding” or “great” results is not the question. I don’t doubt that either.
          My question was more on what basis do *you* decide what is a “great” conductor? The answer is here is quite disappointing because it is just a collection of clichés and prejudices – I don’t know if Karajan was an “unpleasant man” – people who knew him mostly say he was somewhat distanced, but generally very friendly. I never met him personally except for on time but that was a brief encounter, so I never got to “know him”. Did you? And what does that have to do with the subject?
          Böhm was a conformist, but not really “a Nazi”, certainly not a “notorious” one. And, again, what does that have to do with the subject?
          Rattle’s frozen grin gets on my nerves, too, when I see him conduct or speak in interviews, but I try not to let that influence my perception of his music making.
          I can’t say for sure how successful I am at separating that, it is probably impossible to completely do that, but it does appear to me that you are rather heavily influenced by whatever preconceptions you have about these and other conductors.
          And yes, I have read Walter’s account of Mahler with its flowery, self-congratulatory prose, but I don’t know how “accurate” his description is – I have never seen Mahler conduct. Have you?

          • John Borstlap says:

            “My question was more on what basis do *you* decide what is a “great” conductor?” It seems that that question has been answered extensively and clearly, but apparently not to your taste. Sorry!

            It is really another mystery why some people think they ‘detect’ clichées and misconceptions as soon as a text seems to remind them of some traditional way of decription and formulation. Talking about prejudices…! Could it not be that in former times, and mind you: in times when really great music was written and great conductors and soloists straggled the world, there was a better consciousness about musical aesthetics, that there was – generally speaking – a more intense cultural life which produced, indeed, figures like Mahler and Walter and so many others? Types for which we look in vain today? Postwar skepticism and leftish populism formed an egalitarian cult of downgrading high culture (and its language and interpretation) to the level of the illiterati, and classical music (and its language) as merely status symbols for the ‘hypocritical bourgeoisie’ (Bourdieu et al). But all that has been totally misconceived…. and these is a link from these wide-spread misconceptions to the erosion of classical music in the west nowadays with the shrinking means, audiences, subsidies etc.

            My remarks following the conductors’ names were mere asides, NOT the Ten Commandments, just for your information and night rest. These asides are related to the subject in sofar as it underlines that conductors can be great as musicians but not as personalities, while it is their personality that adds the X-factor to their music making, and I think this is remarkable and to some extent disturbing. You see that the question had more layers than you were conscious of. Karajan was not only distant but made war on the Berlin Phil in his later years there, with terrible venom spitted on the players, and he was notorious for being power-hungry and vain and wanting to have his influence stretched everywhere, if he could. His marketing techniques were quite unpleasant and exploitative. Böhm was, according to biographic information, an enthusiastic member of the nazi party for opportunist reasons, also when that was not really necessary. Which does not mean that he killed Jews, but he did not mind being related to destructive politics as long as this could stimulate his career. Somehow I don’t have the feeling that this does correlate with civilized norms…. which are supposed to be enshrined in the great repertoire of classical works that he conducted brilliantly.

    • Alexander Hall says:

      John Borstlap argues that Karajan “made war on the Berlin Phil”. That kind of statement is a disqualification in itself. No conductor has ever “made war” on an orchestra. How could that be anyway? Firing needle-sharp batons into the eyes of all the musicians?
      I cannot stop individual contributors using the most dramatic hyperbole for the sake of effect, but facts need to be respected. The deterioration in the relationbship between Karajan and the Berlin Phil started when the orchestra rejected Sabine Meyer as principal clarinet, against Karajan’s express wishes. I have to say that her later career, and the wonderful way in which she has performed as an ensemble player in the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, more than vindicates Karajan’s judgement and leaves the orchestra nowhere. Their recent ructions over the appointment of Andreas Ottensamer in the very same position raises significant questions about the conduct of the players. Remember, Mr Borstlap, it takes two to tango!

      • John Borstlap says:

        At a rehearsel with the BPO which did not go well, HvK said: ‘Gentlemen, what I would like to do just now is to bind you all with a rope, pour petrol over you and light you with a match’. On which – after a chilly silence – one of the players stood-up and declared: ‘But then you would no longer have an orchestra to conduct’, whereupon HvK answered: ‘O yes, I had forgotten that’.

        I don’t think they were rehearsing Beethoven IX’s finale.

        • Alexander Hall says:

          Sir, I am hoping you are able to distinguish between sarcasm and a state of war. Georg Solti was known at the Royal Opera House as “the screaming skull” for good reason and two seasons ago Esa-Pekka Salonen addressed the Philharmonia during a Bartok rehearsal in these words: “That was disgusting. Now start again.” Nearly all conductors blow their top from time to time and regret saying or doing uncharitable things. They are mere human beings and fallible like the rest of us.

          • John Borstlap says:

            That is, of course, true. And orchestral players are sometimes less than sufficiently attentive or concentrated. In the past, conductors had more license to let go. Listen to a rehearsel of Toscanini attempting Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration:


            I think the orchestra has been shipped-off afterwards to the Vesuvius and thrown-in.

      • Michael Schaffer says:

        Alexander, what are the “recent ructions over the appointment of Andreas Ottensamer”? I am not up to speed on the gossip. 🙂

        • Alexander Hall says:

          At the end of his probationary year, the orchestra was required to vote on whether they would accept him as a permanent member. This is standard practice. What is not standard practice is twice postponing the vote and keeping him in limbo until they finally grudgingly decided they would welcome him into the fold. He is unquestionably one of the finest clarinettists around. Unfortunately, he had already signed a contract with Universal (DGG) for various solo discs, and the Berlin Phil felt he was getting above himself and that he needed to be taken down a peg or two. Not the sort of attitude you would ideally want from your future work colleagues, but since they pay big money for his services I daresay he decided to swallow his pride.

          • Michael Schaffer says:

            I don’t buy that. You don’t really know what is going on behind the scenes there, and even if one or several insiders told you something, that is not representative for an organization which consists of more than 120 people with a very wide spectrum of views and characters. There is no “they” there. “They” are a very diverse group of people.

            And the idea that “they” would collectively think that a new member on an exposed position would need to be “taken down a peg or two” doesn’t make sense either. They have many players especially among the principals who are among the very best in their field and who often are very self-confident and display that, and they don’t usually get “taken down a peg or two by “them”.
            How good a musician is is not something that can be measured in a linear way. There are some who are without doubt extraordinary in their abilities, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are the best suited for this kind of position. So if a vote gets postponed like apparently in this case, there is other stuff going on than is that person good enough or not or does he need to be taught a lesson or nonsense like that. I have followed the process from very up close for a long time – though not recently, as I pointed out, and I have never seen stuff like that “peg thing” happen. I have seen cases though where there were reasonable doubts about how good a fit someone really is and that the vote was postponed to give them another chance or two rather than voting them out.

            Besides, the gossip is kind of interesting for those who are interested in following how top orchestras like these change and evolve and how new outstanding musicians come in and change the composition of the orchestra one by one – but ultimately, it is up to the members of the orchestra to decide who they want to welcome as new members and who not, and why and why not, and it is not for us to judge that process as outsiders.

  • newyorker says:

    Haven’t seen this staging (yet) but Sellars is definitely known for having Tristan snog King Marke, etc. Not surprising he’d whip those tricks out here.

    What concerns me is how this person’s opinion got elevated to “news” or even “criticism”.

  • Milka says:

    We have reached the golden age wherein the second rate have
    overtaken the first rate.It seems both
    Sellars and Rattle think the music in this case is a visual experience .Poor Bach , no one to defend him .Only in music can one pillage the art under banner of contemporary “approach “.
    One can only view them with contempt

  • Alexander Hall says:

    It is simply too much to expect any single conductor, no matter how great, to deliver every single time in the entire repertory. I have long maintained that Rattle just doesn’t have a clue how to conduct the German repertory – the Beethoven Pastoral he conducted 18 months ago in Prague was completely self-regarding and, at 50 minutes, completely static too. But! Hear him in 20th century repertory, including the early Mahler, and you realise how immensely gifted he is with this kind of music. The problem is one which you can observe in several other conductors of the middle generation today: if you haven’t been brought up with Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, and conducted these works from the start – and Rattle spent twenty years discovering one niche after another, never mind his self-confessed blind spot for Tchaikovsky – the chances are that when you reach middle-age your view of these works is, as Germans say, “aufgesetzt” and not really in your blood.

  • Rob van der Hilst says:

    Gents (and Ladies), wherever a new fruits-of-labour by Mr. Peter Sellars appear, upheavel is the very first thing one can expect, on stage and in the hall. So what’s new?
    Boaring is it not?

  • Jenny B says:

    The production is a load of sanctimonious claptrap. It can be seen on the Digital Concert Hall. I cannot understand how all these superstars got mixed up in it. It’s a case of the emperor and no clothes.

  • Tim says:

    If you prefer your Bach, your classical music, preserved as if in a museum, you won’t have enjoyed last night’s Prom.

    Thank god there are some people willing to think, and listen, differently.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Yes, let’s break-down the museums, blow-up the opera houses (the well-known Boulezbian imperative), and prohibit all those boring classical music institutions with their boring concerts… and that silly music education thing…. Let’s all think & listen differently! Different from that awful past where silly old white males with silly names like Beathoven suppressed the masses with their elitist pretentions. Liberté, égalité, fraternité! And, in the name of freedom and our right on our own taste, away with anything ‘classical’. Only THEN will we be happy.

    • David Forder says:

      The Proms are the ‘property’ of BBC Radio 3 and in my view should give as good an experience as possible to the radio listener. This Prom failed in this respect.

    • David Forder says:

      “If you prefer your Bach, your classical music, preserved as if in a museum, you won’t have enjoyed last night’s Prom. – See more at: https://slippedisc.com/2014/09/why-i-walked-out-of-the-berlin-philharmonic-prom/#comment-38891

      This is an absurd remark given the changes and variety in Bach performance practice over the past 30 years or so.

  • Hugh Jones says:

    The main point about Prom 66 is that if you (the Prom goer) did not like the acting, you could close eyes and the music should have still been enough. But last night it was not! I suspect tempi were altered to fit in with the visuals; and that, when the music IS so perfect to stand on its own, is not OK.

  • NYMike says:

    Coming to NY – should be interesting…..

  • David Rowe says:

    Dear Norman,
    Would it be possible to hear your justification for posting this notice while agreeing to the poster’s request for anonymity? I personally do not see why SD should become a vehicle for anonymous postings of a purely subjective nature. I understand that anonymity is sometimes necessary in matters of news/fact gathering. But posts like this seem the beginning of a very slippery (disc!) slope. I realize your judgement is involved in deciding whom to post and so not any Tom/Dick/Henrietta will be appearing. Still, I would feel much better knowing the SD policy on why/when such postings are to be permitted.

  • Karen says:

    Dear Norman,

    I have nothing to add to this discussion but I’d like to subscribe to the comments only.


  • Anonymus says:

    I agree, but on second thought, the whole notion that outsiders (in your definition anyone who didn’t grow up immersed in a certain style and tradition) have no chance to approach a piece of art and succeed with digesting it, gives little credit to the power of the huge cerebral cortex of us humans. Is music making and conducting really so limited by our primal imprints?

  • Olaugh Turchev says:

    Finally put Rattle back where he belongs…

  • Milka says:

    Sellars doesn’t create anything new
    he ransacks old masterworks to suit
    what he believes is contemporary
    sensibility .One can view his work much as one views the work of Lang Lang the pianist and sadly they both seemingly are correct ,
    having contempt for both masterworks
    and audience alike .It is about themselves not the work.Mr. Rattle
    is no better .

  • Siegfried says:

    I’ve not seen, nor heard, the production in question but I do know that it was very well recd here in Berlin, capitol of a country with a certain Bach tradition. It counts among Rattle’s best work with the Philharmonic.

    Our un-named critic is certainly puffing out his plumage in a posturing preening spectacle of peevishness. How old can he be? Had he identified himself, this matter would appear less blandly phony. Anonymity is usually discouraged on SD. Hmmmmmmm

    To me, Rattle has always seemed to lack envy to a dangerous degree, hence is despised by those for whom it is the food of life itself. How quickly one gives in to one’s lower instincts.

  • Rosemary Ellis says:

    Not being able to see the staging obviously created some difficulty as, although the R3 presenter had given a resume of what was to happen, periods of silence at certain times when not expected left me wondering whether my radio had switched off. This, combined with the musical performance itself, has left me wondering whether the St Matthew Passion I have loved, heard and taken part in many times over the past 50+ years was the same work broadcast last evening. I felt particularly sorry for the female soloists who sounded stretched for their pitch at the top of their register. Choral singing left a lot to be desired as well. Overall an extremely underwhelming experience – it certainly didn’t move me which makes me very sad. Such beautiful music – destroyed.

  • Robin Mitchell-Boyask says:

    I have yet to listen to the performance, but, looking at this issue in the big picture, isn’t it great that so many people are arguing about a Bach performance? This is healthy! Having been around Rattle a fair amount, I would guess that he’s happy this many listeners are so engaged.

  • Edgar Brenninkmeyer says:

    How exciting to read all the responses. It certainly leads me to look forward to this performance with even higher anticipation, as Sellars/Rattle/BPhO will perform the Passion in the Armory in Midtown Manhattan on two consecutive nights, on 7 and 8 October(I have tickets for the second performance). It might well be that it works very differently (i.e. better) there than in the Royal Albert Hall. I will know more after the show is over.

  • Marcus Davison says:

    Anybody who has read the previous comments and still clings to the idea that it is worth paying any attention to others’ views on a musical performance should read this morning’s notices in the Times and the Telegraph. One can only marvel at the stamina of a team who (apparently) gave two back-to-back performances of the same 3-hour work – and such very different performances too. My wife and I think we must have attended the same performance as Richard Morrison, which was presumably the second – as this would explain why the hall ran out of programmes.

  • steve says:

    The reviews have mostly been good on the music making and polarized on the production.
    Most upbeat is Richard Morrison in the Times.

  • The bouncy tempo of some of the movements (including the first and last movement of the first part) betrayed a lack of feeling for or understanding of the solemn nature of the texts. Perhaps best seen as a SMP by and for non believers.