Rattlesceptics vs Rattlesnakes

Rattlesceptics vs Rattlesnakes


norman lebrecht

March 06, 2015

Ever since Simon Rattle took up the baton in Berlin at the turn of the century, a Praetorian Guard formed around him. At the first hint of sceptical opinion, these self-appointed defenders went into attack mode, lashing out at errant critics and generally drumming up a state of tension around the conductor’s easygoing personality.

Known as Rattlesnakes, led by a member of the Berlin Phil brass section and an English sports journalist, they may have done more harm than good to their man by making reasoned discussion of his activities well-nigh impossible. In their eyes, the world was either pro-Rattle or anti.

No other conductor has such a guard. Neither Gergiev, with his dubious political affinities, not Thielemann, with his even more questional political opinions, has a rapid-response unit to fight their critics. Both Gergiev and Thielemann – and their supporters – are content to let their work speak for itself. Why Rattle has attracted such defenders is a mystery.

Now some of these voices have been raised again to counter the occasional quizzical eyebrow that has risen at Rattle’ds accession to the London Symphony Orchestra. No one, least of all this writer, is in any doubt that the appointment has been overwhelmingly welcomed, by the players, the media and the British music establishment.

All the more reason, then, to pierce the curtain of hagiolatry with an alternative opinion. The discussion is good for the orchestra, good for music and ultimately good for Rattle himself. As one of the sceptics, this writer is fully aware of Rattle’s achievements and has published a balanced appreciation elsewhere. We at Slipped Disc very much hope that his tenure with the LSO will yield a new concert hall and great success for the orchestra. But not to warn of possible pitfalls ahead would be a denigration of our duty and a denial of democracy. Let the Rattlesnakes hiss and strike. The sceptics must be heard.

simon rattle vesa siren


  • Maria Brewin says:

    It has been suggested in this column, several times I think, that orchestras should do blind auditions. Clearly they can’t be trusted to leave their preconceived opinions aside. Pity it isn’t practicable for concerts to be reviewed in the same way. Opinions on conductors and orchestras are so deeply felt, it would be interesting to monitor the outcome.

  • GONZALEZ says:

    Exactly, point made! The absence of self criticism (or the lack of its promotion) is the main foundation for autocracy and absolutism. Music (and the arts in general) have always been a field to practice just the opposite – democracy.

  • GONZALEZ says:

    Exactly, point made. The absence of self criticism (or the lack of its promotion) is the main foundation for autocracy and absolutism. Music, and the arts in general, has always been a filed to practice just the opposite – democracy. Any well-founded discussion or debate is enriching. Thanks, Mr. Lebrecht!

  • Emil Archambault says:

    “We”? You are of course aware that many of your readers don’t agree with your urge to criticise a job before the job has begun?

  • Olaugh Turchev says:

    “Why Rattle has attracted such defenders is a mystery”? Simple:
    Conducting mediocrity.

  • Andrew R. Barnard says:

    Isn’t there a middle ground between idolatry and vitriol? If Rattle has fans who defend him too quickly, does Norman’s constant complaining improve matters? Methinks two wrongs don’t make a right.


  • Alexander Hall says:

    Norman, I don’t always agree with you and I think you are wrong about the VPO and Eschenbach, to take two recent examples, but I salute you for your ability to be thought-provoking and controversial and not to accept at face value the incredible amount of hype and PR spin which is also part of the world of classical music. Far better to have contributors tearing their hair out in rage rather than being bored to death at blandness and sycophancy.

  • mr oakmount says:

    I agree with NL that there should not be any knee-jerk reaction against critics, but some rules ought to be observed by all sides who are interested in a fair discourse. I am worried though about two things:

    1) A growing tendency here and elsewhere to divide people into antagonist groups, “Rattlesceptics vs Rattlesnakes” not being a great headline if you want a cool-headed analasys and discussion.

    2) A tendency to immediately jump to conclusions, even before the facts are established.

    Obviously the stakes are high for the LSO, and there are fascinating accounts of how some appointments in the past, Andre Previn for example, were heavily controversial, also within the LSO itself. They have done very well with initiatives in education, their LSO Live CDs, and I have on occasion received competent, friendly and often heartfelt responses to the (few) mails I wrote to their website. May they continue to prosper.

  • Anon says:

    Mr. Lebrecht, it seems you need to learn about the difference between scepticism and vitriolic badmouthing. But it is not surprising for a tabloid journalist to have forgotten about that difference altogether.
    Your journalistic ethics are in the gutter.

  • JanHus says:

    acting really like a clown now

  • Christos Sofis says:

    Rattle in Birgmingham helped elevating the local orchestra on to the premier league. He has an attractive personality and is a talented personality manager. He definitely is a talented conductor and posesses a good command of modern music. He has his ways with audiences and media, and he is generous with his collegues and fellow musicians. All that earned him a peacefull tenure in Berlin. I doubt, though, if he is going to be remembered for his contribution to conducting style, to orchestral sound, to reinventing standard repertory, to musical developement of the orchestra. LSO must be clear whence they are targeting. To quote Aristoteles, the knowledge of our ends, like archers who have a mark to aim at, make it more likely to hit upon what is right for us. What do LSO really expect from Rattle?

  • Michael says:

    It was hard to find the balance in the “balanced appreciation”, but then writers are rarely objective critics of their own scribblings. And what is there to fear by naming the so-called Praetorian Guard? Does anyone actually have the power to make “reasoned discussions of [Rattle’s] activities well-nigh impossible” ? If they have, they should be exposed.

    And how can someone so obviously anti-Rattle describe himself as a mere “sceptic”? As for calling anyone the “Tony Blair” of anything……..no wonder Rattle was less than pleased.

  • MacroV says:

    Just who, pray tell, forms this Praetorian guard? Names, please. Does Sir Simon have a claque that follows him around to mindlessly cheer him at his concerts, or silence dissenters? You’re a journalist; print the names of these miscreants along with their (mis)deeds! I can tell you that I’m not part of any such entity; just a music lover who likes to follow the business and offer occasional bits of comment on this blog.

    Otherwise, why all the fuss about Sir Simon and this latest appointment? Really, it’s a step down from the Berlin Philharmonic – where he will have been for 16 years, which is hard to characterize as a failed tenure. No wonder many British music lovers and LSO followers are excited at the prospect. Does anyone seriously doubt that any number of top orchestras looking for a new music director, including the New York Philharmonic and the Chicago Symphony (I’m assuming Muti won’t extend his current contract, expiring by around 2020; he’ll be close to 80 after all), would aggressively pursue him? Sir Simon will have his pick of top-notch guest-conducting gigs at the big orchestras and opera houses. I don’t know why he even wants to conduct the LSO, but let him have at it and enjoy.

  • Robert Kenchington says:

    I know this Rattles the cage for dyed in the wool Simonites but there has always been this refusal by this conductor’s many acolytes to accept that his talents are not without limitation.
    I remember years ago while he was still in Birmingham I raised a few mild criticisms about his conducting technique (which I still think is one of the worst in the business) and what seemed to me less than convincing interpretations only to be howled down in the most savage manner by members of the music society I was part of at the time. It was if I had committed some form of heresy. After that I was persona non grata and eventually left the society such was the hostility directed towards me for making criticisms that would have been deemed perfectly viable had my target been Leonard Bernstein or Georg Solti instead of Rattle.
    Not even during the heyday of Karajan have I seen such blind adoration of a conductor. It’s as if there is no other in the entire history of the profession. Yet time and again I have failed to be convinced that Rattle is a ‘great’ maestro to be mentioned in the same breath as say, Toscanini, Carlos Kleiber or of course, Karajan himself.
    Until Sir Simon’s fan club can recognize a more objective appraisal of both Rattle’s successes and failures, then a genuine understanding of his work can never been reached.

    • Andrew R. Barnard says:

      Don’t make no sense. Rattle’s fans go over the top so critics can’t accurately assess his work? Punishing Rattle for having a great PR image just doesn’t make sense.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Rattle is a very good but not a great conductor indeed, and that is a matter of personality. However gifted he is, his music making is often rather superficial. But sometimes it is really very good – I heard a beautiful Brahms IV from him, but a stiff and non-Viennese Mahler IV destroying the piece. Sometimes he advocated the worst possible pretentious modernism, which does raise doubts about his musical understanding in general. In London he will be fully at home, it seems.

    • Patrick says:

      I’m curious, what makes his technique “one of the worst in the business”?

      • Anon says:

        According to the well known standard work “Armchair conducting for Dummies” Rattle’s technique is lacking in many aspects, particularly in the “bella-figura-empty-inspired-looking-gesture” department, which is dealt with over chapters 1 to 39 in that wonderful book.

        Riccardo Muti gives a video lecture about this most important gesture here.

      • Talking the talk says:

        Patrick -the fact that you ask this question assumes that you think it possible to answer it in a few – or more than a few words – on a blog site. If the discussion of conducting technique can be reduced to fit such a medium as this then why does any great conductor bother to spend a lifetime developing their technique or even spend several years studying in the first place.

        Maybe we should set up a blog site to teach people the violin or oboe in this way – ah, but of course conducting doesn’t require technique it is just a case of having a large and convincing personality – where is a convincing egomaniac when you need one?

        But regardless lets start with the fact that Rattle has no real contact with the sound he is
        working with. Is this fact helpful to begin to understand the primitive baton technique Rattle has got by with all these years?

      • Robert Kenchington says:

        Just watch any television footage of Rattle in concert and you’ll see what I mean. Compared to most other conductors he has no stick technique whatsoever and his stiff, flailing gestures bear little, if any resemblance to what is actually going on in the music. Take a look at Toscanini or Karajan and you’ll see a difference straightaway. Their gestures clearly illustrated what they wanted from the orchestra and eloquently conveyed through body language the sound of the playing. I simply do not see this quality in Rattle’s desperate, nerve-laden podium presence.

        • Nick says:

          The implication from Robert Kenchington is that stick technique is all. It’s not! Apart from the fact that plenty of fine conductors nowadays don’t or even rarely use a baton, there are many musicians who will say eye contact is at least as important. And as we know, Karajan’s eyes were almost permanently closed later in his career. I once saw him conduct Figaro at Salzburg. I was at the front of the stalls where I could watch his movements. When Paolo Montarsolo as Dr. Bartolo came slightly unstuck in the Act I aria, Karajan did precisely nothing to help him. He never even looked up to the stage. You can have a glorious stick technique, but if you do nothing to help your artists your technique does not do you much good!

          Whilst on the subject of stick technique, what of Furtwangler whose technique, if one could call it such, was all over the shop? Yet his musicians mostly adored him. As he himself said –

          “Recently a critic wrote about a concert of mine with the Vienna Philharmonic: ‘With the unclear gestures of the conductor, it is impossible to understand how the orchestra could achieve such flawless ensemble playing. There is only one solution to the puzzle: endless rehearsals.’ No, that is precisely not the solution. My rehearsals do not exceed the customary number and hardly touch on questions of technique, that is, of precision. This very precision is much more the natural consequence of my ‘unclear’ conducting. That this unclear conducting is not unclear after all, is shown by the fact that the instrument functions with flawless precision. It is, so to speak, the acid test.”

          I find the general tone of this discussion quite meaningless. I am not in the Rattle fan club, but I am certain he will do wonders for music – and the development of music – in Britain and will bring a new flair to London’s concert scene. If a fine new concert hall happens as well, he will have done a huge service to generations of musicians and music lovers.

          • rambonito says:

            Please have a look to Toto’s comment,i think it explain quite well that it has nothing to do with the baton…it shows how weak his pulse feeling is, and this make the musicians feeling so disturbe, so the music has never a long bow and never breathe as well!

        • Patrick says:

          I just don’t hear these technique issues. With conducting, it seems to me that the proof is in the pudding…or in this case, the sound. I just don’t hear the sort of problems usually caused by poor conducting technique. There are so many versions of good technique. One can, of course, quibble with his interpretation if you’d like (though who cares what we think), but I hear no evidence that his stick is getting in the way.

      • toto says:

        Things that make his conducting one of the worse in the business:
        Total lack of pulse as a result of giving the cues too quick in almost every bar.
        Inability to form/shape a melodic line in the string section.
        An enormous stiffness in all his movements.
        Not being able to breath with the players.
        The worst is the lack of pulse. A good orchestra can nowdays play the works of the main repertoire basically without the conductor. But unintentionally changing the puls all the time (nothing to do with accelerando or ritardando),
        not only does not help, but sereously desturbs the players.
        All above mentioned is CONDUCTING 101! BASICS!

        His qualities as a conductor are :
        No memory and concentration problems, extremely clear in the head.
        His huge charismatic personality, alas, not so much in music, rather in “people skills”….

        • Erwin Poelstra says:

          Good analysis, I agree. Also, I don’t like all these facial histrionics…truly great conductors (AND instrumentalists!) don’t need them — with their economy of movement and gesture they can accomplish the maximal musical effect.
          In fact these histrionics are often a sign that he/she is lacking something elementary.

          • NYMike says:

            On hearing Rattle conduct both Philly and Berlin @ Carnegie during the last ten years or more, I have to disagree with the above posters. As a retired professional musician knowing much of the music he’s conducted, I’ve never failed to be impressed by his bringing out facets of scores previously overlooked, plus his general pacing. Philly would have loved to get him for their MD. BTW, the great Koussevitsky had little or no “baton technique.” That didn’t stop him from producing hair-raising concerts over his 25-year span at the Boston Symphony.

          • Anon says:

            Mike, it is fair to state, that Rattle can not conduct line, cantabile, legato, long breath, long phrase, well. Yet this is according to Furtwängler the most important skill of a great conductor.
            He is fantastic in works requiring rhythmical sharpness e.g. Sacre and many modern works. He is one of the greatest living conductors for most music written after Mahler and Strauss.

    • Nick says:

      “Not even during the heyday of Karajan have I seen such blind adoration of a conductor”

      I suggest you must have a fairly short memory! Reminds me of the old joke. Karajan, Klemperer and Bernstein are sitting on a park bench trying to decide who is the greatest conductor.

      “I, Otto Klemeper, am ze greatest exponent of Beethoven. Beethoven is ze greatest composer and so I must be ze greatest conductor.”

      Bernstein was unfazed. “Last night, I had a dream and in my dream I saw God. ‘Lenny, my boy,’ he said to me, ‘Lenny, there is no doubt about it. You are the greatest conductor.”

      To which Karajan merely turned to Bernstein and asked, “Vot did I say?”

      • Robert Kenchington says:

        My memory is better than yours with regard to the joke. This is how it goes:

        Three conductors in Heaven:

        Sir Georg Solti: I am the greatest. I recorded the first studio Ring cycle and was knighted by the Queen of England.

        Seijii Ozawa: No, I am the greatest. The biggest name from Japan since Sony.

        Leonard Bernstein: No, I am the greatest. I am a composer as well as a conductor and it was God himself who inspired me to write my Mass.

        Herbert von Karajan: No I didn’t!

        The point is, this joke was told during Karajan’s lifetime. If anyone dares to tell a similiar joke about Rattle, they’d be burned at the stake for heresy or beheaded for high treason!

        • NYMike says:

          Another version:
          Heifetz goes to the orchestra in the sky and is given a chair in the 1st violin section. After ascertaining that the concertmaster is Paganini, the ass’t is Kreisler and so on, he asks who the conductor is. The answer: it’s God – he thinks he’s Karajan.

  • David Boxwell says:

    Rattleneutrals, however, are still dismayed by the repeated use of the most unflattering picture possible of the conductor.

  • Luciano says:

    I’m no rattle fan, but I still find the blatant negativity levelled at him on the main blog here amazing. Whatever way you look at it, it’s a good appointment for the LSO.

  • Simon Funnell says:

    Norman, what got up my nose was that the first two stories on this subject on Slipped Disc were negative. There may well be some validity in some of the negatives you cite but what appeared to be 100% negativity just made Slipped Disc look out of touch. Who else could have got George Osborne to even consider the feasibility of a new concert hall? And that’s before he even got the job. Rattle’s presence in the UK will be a shot in the arm for classical music in the UK. Your failure to acknowledge that amid the – perhaps correct concerns – rather diminished the impact of what you said. And made me furious. But I am not a member f any Preorian guard for Rattle, just grateful that we will have someone who is a champion for our art form back home.

    • J. says:

      Lebrecht ignored Osborne’s case about the new hall. “Oh, he is a conservative”. The funny thing is, only a conservative magazine (Standpoint) and a conservative newspaper (DT) want Lebrecht. The liberal press hates him. And then our boy here says that the “traditional press is dead (they don’t want, mimimi)”.

  • John says:

    Get off it, Mr Lebrecht. Much more of this and you’ll give mindless pedantry a bad name.
    You seem prey to obsession, sailing right round the bend. Your apparent need to
    devour those you dislike reeks of vendetta. Or is it all a show, a sham, publiciity
    and reflected glory? Rattle is the man of the hour. Are you simply milking him
    for all you can get?

  • Milka says:

    Why all the fuss ? he is only a conductor . here to-day gone and forgotten to-morrow.
    He creates nothing ………

  • Kris HELSEN says:

    I saw Rattle conducting several times w the lso recently, he clearly has a rapport and chemistry that’s missing w Gergiev. Personally, I think getting Rattle onboard is a real coup for the Lso.

  • William Safford says:

    Just one datum:

    I have attended or performed in thousands of concerts, ranging from elementary school cacophony to the likes of the Berlin Philharmonic.

    In the top five of all concerts I’ve ever attended was the 2000 performance of Schoenberg Gurrelieder, in Carnegie Hall with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Simon Rattle conducting.

  • Zax says:

    It seems that the government has found £1m to fund a ‘feasibility study’ of the concert hall he wants. If the project goes ahead, how many more millions will be deployed to grant him his wish? And how does this square with his apparent views on music education, which all this funding would be better spent on?