Simon Rattle, discussing Sibelius, explains ‘difficulties’ with the Berlin Philharmonic

In a fascinating hourlong interview with Sibelius expert Vesa Siren, the Berlin Phil conductor describes the symphony that is least suited to his orchestra.

‘To do an accelerando at all with Berlin Philharmonic is really quite hard! It is a very heavy, Germanic truck that has it’s feet on the ground and part of what is extraordinary is how the sound comes out off the ground. And often with Sibelius, you have to really move. It is not that we can’t rush, because we can rush like hell particularly when we don’t want to. When it is necessary to get faster in a controlled way it is very difficult. It requires the same kind of trust as when you stand up and someone  says I will catch you when you fall. To actually do this accelerando without going off the rails requires an incredible amount of trust. I would say that fifth symphony this orchestra found the hardest, by far. The symphonies I found tremendously difficult with other orchestras – 4 and 6 – were absolutely no problem here at all. Berlin Phil knows about the sound and line and how to go through silences with the meaning. I look forward to work incredibly hard (with the fifth) — with enough time to work incredibly hard.’

Rattle goes on to discuss the Sibelius work of several other conductors. He runs through a critical discography. Watch the interview here.

simon rattle vesa siren

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  • Rattle’s observation that Sibelius is much more performed in the UK than Germany is interesting. From a larger perspective, one wonders why Scandia gravitates toward the English-speaking world rather than Germany. Their social mores and concepts of society are more Germanic than British, and their languages are considerably closer to German than English (except Finish which is not Indo-European.) And Denmark even shares a border with Germany. Does it go back to the period when Scandinavians partially colonized the British Isles (sometimes in a not very pleasant manner)? Or is it more related to modern cultural relationships – or perhaps cultural fears? Or is it simply because they see more power in connecting with the English-speaking world?

    One also wonders why Scandinavia leads the world in terms of activity in classical music. There is no place that spends more on culture in general and especially classical music – and with notable results on the international stage. Is it because they are so small, rich, and culturally homogenous (almost all white and all Lutheran)? Or more provocatively, is it because they are the last countries on earth so bourgeois that they can embrace classical music without a slight sense of embarrassment? Or is it simply because they are better educated? A cultural mystery, but given their successes in classical music, perhaps one worth considering.

    • I have also wondered about this. In the US, there is a strong Scandinavian element to culture, from the Northeast all the way across the Upper Midwest and Northern Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Northwest. And with healthy smatterings in California and elsewhere. So, the attachment of many Americans’ to Sibelius makes sense to me.

      So why the British Sibelius connection? It strikes me as strange since British aesthetics, which range from sophisticated urbanity to bucolic coziness, seem so at odds with the leaner, more natural Scandinavian ideal. Could it be that, musically at least, Great Britain and Scandinavia were on the musical periphery?

      There were four great musical traditions in the 19th Century: France, Italy, Central Europe, Russia. Other regions in Europe outside of these traditions were producing quality, but seem to have been looked down upon by the powers that were. Perhaps the British and Scandinavians developed natural empathy as musical outsiders.

      • At first I was going to say that any such Brit-Sibelius connection perhaps is due to Thomas Beecham followed by Colin Davis. But upon reflection, it seems a rather facile generalization that really does not say much nor is terribly important. What does it mean? That Sibelius sells more tickets in Britain than elsewhere? I bet Tchaikovsky outsells him everywhere. That Sibelius has influenced British music? How? Whom? The one thing one can usually agree on is that, wherever, Sibelius is “safe.”

    • Your second question is also a good one. I would leave the “Lutheran” part out of it since many Scandinavians, though officially Lutheran, have a strong agnostic and even atheistic strain in them. Could it be that Scandinavians, though they did suffer to some degree in the 20th Century, suffered much less than others? And concurrently, that their cultures succeeded in developing naturally, without excessive deconstruction by social engineers?

  • Simon Rattle does not have a drivers licence.
    So – someone without this should not talk about trucks at all.
    And a truck only behaves badly if the driver is really bad.

  • Interesting to remember that the most admired orchestral accelerando passages among recorded performances are with the Berlin Philharmonic! Both under Furtwängler, Schubert’s “Great” C Major and Schumann’s Fourth.

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