How Simon Rattle changed the Berlin Philharmonic

How Simon Rattle changed the Berlin Philharmonic


norman lebrecht

June 18, 2018

The orchestra has published a statistical survey of the 16 years of its outgoing music director.

During that period, the Philharmonic acquired 55 new players (out of 128).

It played 40 world premieres.

And among its most-programmed works, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring was third and Alban Berg’s Three Pieces for Orchestra came in sixth, just one performance behind Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony.

Read full survey here.



  • Caravaggio says:

    A little voice inside me tells me that Kirill Petrenko will be raising the bar in Berlin so that in a few years it’ll be “Sir Simon who?”. I hope to be proven right.

    • Ellingtonia says:


    • FS60103 says:

      You mean just like it’s “Abbado who?”, “Herbert von who?”, “Wilhelm who?”. What a silly observation. All great conductors bring something unique.

      • anon says:

        What is Abbado’s legacy?

        • Bruce says:

          People dismiss his role as merely custodial now, but he humanized the orchestra from the finely calibrated music-producing machine that it became under Karajan. Also the first women were admitted under his watch. (Trying to think if Karajan let any in… aside from l’affaire Sabine Meyer)

          • Herr Doktor says:

            Bruce, with all due respect, what Abbado did is dismantle the wonderful, sonorous sound of the BPO, and replace it with something much less gorgeous while making sloppiness of ensemble acceptable. I heard them live on tour performing Bruckner’s 9th, and was shocked by the sloppiness, occasional out of tune playing, general lack of ensemble, and occasional crassness that I heard with my own ears. I have plenty of live recordings of the BPO during the Karajan years, and they did not play this way during his tenure. If you consider that “humanizing,” then I agree with your description. In the words of a friend who observes these things closely, “Abbado destroyed the special klang of the orchestra.”

            With regards to women in the BPO, the fact of the matter is, it was Karajan who was trying to bring in Sabine Meyer, simply because he thought she was the best possible choice. The orchestra pushed back viciously, and we know the results. Karajan was not trying to make a statement about women, he was trying to make a statement about having the best possible principal clarinet player in the orchestra, who happened to be a woman. To suggest as you have that somehow Karajan was sexist and prevented the orchestra from bringing in women as it would have otherwise desired, is exactly getting it backwards.

          • Bruce says:

            I did not suggest that Karajan was sexist. I knew that he tried to bring Meyer in because he thought she was the best possible choice, and the orchestra resisted (they said she wouldn’t be a good fit), etc. etc. I don’t know where you found my “suggestion” that he was sexist and kept women out of the orchestra; but if you were able to find it and believe it, then you won’t need to trouble yourself with believing what I’m saying here.

            As far as Abbado admitting the first women… that’s something that began to happen while he was the conductor. I don’t pretend to know why.

            I’ve never heard the BPO live, unless you count a few times on TV. I was never able to discern a change in quality (ensemble, intonation, etc) from Karajan’s time to Abbado’s. Probably I just don’t have a very discerning ear, or very developed taste, or something.

          • M2N2K says:

            Well, I heard BPO live in concerts with Karajan, Abbado, Rattle – several times with each of them – and it played great on every occasion. Maybe the orchestra was a bit more “perfect” and/or “accurate” with HvK, but it definitely became more stylistically versatile since then, thanks first to Abbado and then quite significantly to Rattle as well.

          • Petros Linardos says:

            I too heard the BPO live under Karajan, Abbado and Rattle. And of course I have heard recordings under all three of them.

            To my ears the orchestra has sounded mostly impeccable under all three conductors. The one off day happened to be under Karajan: Also sprach Zaratoustra, at the Vienna Musikverein, June 1980. Concertmaster Michel Schwalbe sounded badly out of tune in the waltz, and there were some rough passages in the brass towards the end. All that in an otherwise mighty impressive concert. I had heard the same work under the same people ten months earlier in Salzburg and it was flawless. My bottom line: even the BPO was and is comprised of humans.

            Though I am generally an Abbado fan, especially for his late years, I don’t think that he was at his best in Bruckner. Karajan was definitely the better Brucknerian.

            @Herr Dr: I wouldn’t compare live experiences with live recordings. The latter don’t lie, but are selective. The skip the off moments. Live recordings are often a collage of about 2-3 performances given within a few days of each other in the same venue. Had they recorded, say, a Zaratoustra like the one I heard live in 1980 in Vienna (see above), they would substituted the off passages using another performance.

          • Karen says:

            @Herr Doktor:
            “I heard them live on tour performing Bruckner’s 9th, and was shocked by the sloppiness, occasional out of tune playing, general lack of ensemble, and occasional crassness that I heard with my own ears. ”

            So this started with Abbado? When they played the same piece at the beginning of this month in Vienna, the orchestra went completely out of sync at one point during Scherzo.

      • John Borstlap says:

        The Chinese conductor Wu Chang Hoo suffered terribly from the misunderstandngs caused by his name in the West, in spite of his successes.

    • Michelangelo Merisi says:

      Kirill who?

  • william osborne says:

    It is true that 42% of the Berlin Phil’s current membership was hired under Rattle, and yet the orchestra still has the 3rd lowest ratio of women in the world, not even half the number the Zurich State Opera, the National Orchestra of France, the BBC in London, or the New York Philharmonic have. Why is it that women can qualify in such large numbers for the top orchestras in these other countries, but not for the Berlin Phil?

    One possible indicator might be hinted at by looking at the Bayreuther Festspeil Orchester where women represent only 5% of the personnel. The Bayreuther Orchestrer does not use auditions. Instead each section invites who they want. The m/f ratio in the winds and percussion is 66 to 3.

    Berlin does not use fully blind auditions. Do the attitudes demonstrated by the Bayreuther Orchester suggest possible causes for the low ratios in Berlin?

    • Ellintonia says:

      I assume the assertions of discrimination against women that you make, are based on empirical research, so I would interested in knowing such things as how many women applied for various posts at the BP, how many were invited to audition, how many felt that they had received fair and equitable treatment in the process (and if not, why not, and did they do anything about it?)). This would give us all an idea of the numbers applying for possibly the most competitive jobs in the finest orchestra in the world and whether there are large numbers of female candidates either not getting past the application stage and also the audition stage. Or am I simply being nieve here?

      • william osborne says:

        These are good questions, and occassionaly the German musicians union for orchestras (DOV) publishes numbers. For most orchestras, the ratios for women applicants and winners look pretty good. That’s why the Berlin Phil stands out. Its ratio for accepting women is quite low by comparison with orchestras in Germany and abroad.

      • John Borstlap says:

        Ideal would be if a symphony orchestra would consist of one half of women and the other half of men. But one has to be careful to decide which half will be which: the upper of the lower half?

    • Ger says:

      I completely agree with you. It may be an unintentional bias but in a statistical sense it is very unlikely! It is possible that works do not apply for an audition but that can be checked.

    • MacroV says:

      All a fair question, but in Berlin the Music Director has only one vote, so this isn’t really pertinent to Sir Simon’s legacy. In fact the whole “55 new musicians hired” isn’t a Rattle issue, either.

      • anon says:

        Good point, 55 new hires could just as well be read as 55 players who quit, or neutrally, there were 55 turnovers or 55 retirements. How’s that an accomplishment? It’s not like he fired 55 tenured players in their prime and remade the sound of Berlin!

        • Allen says:

          A new orchestra member in the BPO must also survive a one-year probationary period.
          The entire orchestra decides who is invited in, AND who stays in! And he/she must retire by the mandatory age (65, I think). It was kind of a big deal still when the amazing Sarah Willis broke the “brass barrier”, or whatever you might call it. And she might well be the single greatest ambassador of the orchestra, as well as a stunning low horn player. I don’t know about ratios, stats, etc.
          Lots o’ ladies in the orchestra now… 35 years ago(roughly)…none!

      • Bruce says:

        55/16 = 3.4375, so not quite 3 1/2 players per year. Pretty typical average, especially for a highly paid orchestra where people can afford to retire.

    • Ben says:

      William – another woman posting as man – why not just use the real woman or ‘feminist’ name?

      • william osborne says:

        I can assure you that the last time I checked, I am quite real. See:

        And to another comment above, it’s quite true, the GMDs of the Berlin Phil don’t have much say in the hiring process. This isn’t a Rattle issue.

    • Bruce says:

      66:3 among the winds and percussion? 69 people in the wind and percussion section? My goodness.

      • william osborne says:

        Yes, it’s huge. They do so many services they have to rotate them. I’m not sure, but I think there are some who might not stay the whole time and share the season which might increase the number a bit as well.

        Many of the big European houses have big orchestras. The Vienna State Opera Orchestra has 149 positions. Munich has about 140. The Paris Opera has an orchestra of 170, a chorus of 110 and the corps de ballet of 150.

        Contrast this to the Houston Grand Opera, whose orchestra has about 50 musicians. The Michigan Opera in Detroit has 13 violins, 3 violas, 3 cellos, 2 basses, and two of each wind. They only do about 15 performances per year. The big European houses can do that many in even two weeks, hence the need to rotate services.

        • MacroV says:

          I think Bruce’s point is that 69 is still too many winds. Among the permanent members there are 5 each of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons = 20.

          6 horns, 5 trumpets, 5 trombones, 1 tuba = 17

          Offhand I’d guess 6 percussionists

          Total: 43.

          Out of a permanent membership of 128.

          Yes, they do rotate in a number of subs, mostly from the Academie, I imagine.

          • 5566hh says:

            I think there has been some confusion here, since the figure of 69 wind and percussion players was for the Bayreuther Festspielorchester, not the Berliner Philharmoniker.

        • william osborne says:

          Yes, I was talking about Bayreuth.

    • John Borstlap says:

      My many flies on the walls in Germany tell me that in general, Germans are much more sensitive to female charm than males in other countries. Being a gründlich people, they want to do their job well, and female presence is experienced as a grave threat to their concentration, especially when they handle the brass.

      • Petros Linardos says:

        How can they accompany effectively a beautiful woman with a beautiful voice on stage? Say a truly convincing Salome?

        • John Borstlap says:

          But that is simple. In concert format, they only see the female back, and in opera the singers are above the pit so they can’t see anything distracting. In his design for the Bayreuth theatre, Wagner devised a pit which was completely hidden under the stage, so that no possible distraction could divert attention from his scores. (For the same reason he devised hard, wooden chairs in the auditorium to counter-act any erotic impulse.)

          In this context it has to be admitted that problems of orchestral balance become a greater challenge with female conductors at the rostrum: it is then not ony the sonic balance but also the emotional balance which has to be controlled.

  • Ben says:

    If new works are repeated over several seasons, then it’s active promoting/championing them. If a new work is like once-and-done after the premiere season, then:

    1) the music director has bad taste and realized the goof selection, and/or
    2) the music director was forced to do it due to some preset arrangement, and/or
    3) the music director is doing his/her a buddy a favor, and/or
    4) the music director was just ‘fishing’, hoping to ‘score once in a while with a piece that sticks on the wall with the audience’

    Is there any statistics on how frequent those 40 world-premieres are repeated over multiple seasons?

    • Will Duffay says:

      Wasn’t that always the case? New music doesn’t always stick. Even more so since WWII.

    • Bruce says:

      The amount of “one-and-done” music from previous centuries is staggering as well. All those 1,000-CD “if Telemann wrote it for a dinner party in 1763, we’re going to record it”-type projects attest to that.
      Trying something out and then it turns out to be bad does not equal bad taste. Not recognizing that it’s bad — that’s bad taste 🙂 I remember one of Nietzsche’s aphorisms to the effect that great geniuses like Mozart had just as many mediocre ideas as anybody else — the difference was, they could tell the mediocre ideas from the great ones.

      (I wonder if we would hold Brahms in such high esteem if he hadn’t burned half his output. Or would he be one of those “some good pieces among the junk” composers?)

      There are some pieces out there that are getting more than one performance. Mason Bates’ “Mothership” is making the rounds, for example, and I have now played Jennifer Higdon’s “blue cathedral” twice over the course of … I guess it was 11 or 12 years. We went longer than that between performances of Brahms #3.

      Will any of these stand the test of time? We’ll have to check back in 150 years and find out.

      • Robert Holmén says:

        “Trying something out and then it turns out to be bad does not equal bad taste.”

        Trying something out and finding it’s bad and yet still inflicting it on an audience has got to be something worse than mere bad taste.

        “Will any of these stand the test of time? We’ll have to check back in 150 years and find out.”

        This has got to be one of the more mistaken notions of classical music culture. The reality is just about every work we regard as standard repertoire today was successful in its time. Likewise it is difficult to identify many pieces that were standard rep for a century and then dropped.

        These world premieres that are not well-received today? They won’t be coming back in 150 years.

        • Bruce says:


        • Saxon Broken says:

          R.Holmen writes: “Likewise it is difficult to identify many pieces that were standard rep for a century and then dropped.”

          Umm…I think I disagree. Meyerbeer and Helevy were standard repertoire throughout the 19th century but are almost never performed now. The bel canto repertoire and Baroque opera, after a long period of not being performed, and not quite regularly preformed. Mahler was rarely performed even in Britain and the US after he died, until being revived in the 1960s and 1970s. Sibelius seems to have gone out-of-fashion.

    • Robert Holmén says:

      I also am curious about how many of those 40 have had a life after Berlin. (I Google that Wynton Marsalis’ piece has gotten an NY Phil performance.)

      Ricardo Muti recently made the point that he’s conducted world premieres in his career but none of them ever gained further traction in the concert world.

      • John Borstlap says:

        There has arisen a great shift in the central performance culture since 1945. In earlier times, there was a filtering process in place, which gradually filtered-out the mediocre or bad until the best was collected, although some music lingered a long time before it was no longer deemed really interesting (Meyerbeer, for example). This filtering process consisted of a strong commitment of a large number of dedicated performers and audiences who felt music being a very important factor in ‘the good life’ (in spite of Bourdieu’s crazy claims that music was merely an instrument of bourgeois distinction). This commitment covered both ‘old’ repertoire and new works: premières were anticipated with the greatest interest and different opinions debated in heated exchanges, in newspapers, music journals, within family gatherings. All before the onset of music recording.

        But since WW II the central performance culture has turned into a museum of which the heart is a programming routine of a restricted repertoire, only occasionally sprinkled with something new, be it from the past (an old work dug-up, dushed-off and wrapped in pep talk), or new (accompanied by hearing manuals). But the territory of ‘the new’ has diversified so much, and boundaries dissolved so drastically – leading to pure sound patterns or pop infested confections presented as serious music – that both musicians and audiences have become indifferent to anything outside the hallowed canon, duly accepting whatever is presented but without the commitment of yore. So, also any interest in debate has evaporated and the truly great performances of today are the achievements of performers in the museum repertoire, which are exclusively reviewed as performances, without any attention for the music. So, without the former filtering process, apart from the core repertoire anything goes, and if something good happens to be performed that also happens to be new, it is not taken-up elsewhere, because the wide-spread commitment which supported musical developments has disappeared.

        There are many different factors contributing to this state of affairs, like the recording industry which on one hand has greatly opened-up music to so many people, but on the other hand has bereaved music of the rarity of its performance and led to a blasé and spoiled attitude. But maybe the greatest factor has been the development and claims of postwar modernism which has damaged the reputation of the art form immensily, since it destroyed the credibility with audiences. Even when its harshest products are no longer ‘de rigeur’, the echos of its ugliness and aggression are still in the air, feeding suspicion and indifference.

        The late music publisher Ernst Roth, who worked at Universal Edition in Vienna and later at Boosey in London, had close contacts with Stravinsky, Strauss, Szymanowski, Bartok, Schoenberg, Berg and Webern. He was very sceptical about new music which explored ‘atonality’ and set-out to write things which broke with some fundamentals of the art form, like tonal coherence, expression (communication), and form which could be somehow experienced in the listening act, all this forming the basis of contact between composer, performer and audience. He said that he feared that if the audience’s commitment was lost, it would be very hard to get it back, it would unravel the fragile balance of the three parties of musical culture: ‘Even is a symphony in pure C major could be written today, the pulic, indifferent to all types of new music, would reject it.’

        Sad isn’t it? That is why it is important that debates are again initiated, and music lovers begin again to think about the art form they feel committed to, and hence the need for websites like SD.

        • M2N2K says:

          Agreed with most of your points here. The one that is still puzzling to me is your continuous dissatisfaction with the fact that classical music critics often write about a performance more than about a piece while reviewing standard repertoire. When the subject is a well-known piece that they have written about dozen of times before, what new profound wisdom do you expect those critics to invent? Of course they would concentrate on HOW it was performed, thus giving their full “attention” indeed to the music – by expressing their opinion on whether or not the performer did justice to the piece by realizing its musical content and communicating it to the audience. When reviewing a new or an unknown piece, it is only natural that they should devote more space in their articles to description and evaluating the piece itself than would be the case for the standard repertoire.

          • John Borstlap says:

            Of course you are right. But I mentioned it to show how strange and unnatural a canonical performance culture is where it is not the thing itself, the music, but its presentation which appears to draw most of the attention. If a performance of a standard work is really good, it would be normal to comment on how the well-known music came across this time. Performance is not totally isolated from the work, interpretration partly creates the music.

          • M2N2K says:

            We can’t both be “right” about it, because you still seem to be insisting that concentrating on performance qualities in case of standard repertoire is “strange and unnatural”, while I am saying that it is absolutely normal and indeed natural. But I certainly agree with you when at the end of this comment you are completely reversing what you wrote at its beginning.

  • anon says:

    The trend among orchestras is to boast the number of world premieres. It’s a race to be first, no matter the quality, no matter if these pieces are never played again.

    Indeed, in this race for world premieres, there is zero incentive to play any piece a second time. There is no bragging rights to being the second orchestra to play a piece.

    That’ll be the trend for a long time to come: disposable premiered pieces.

    • Chris Clift says:

      In the 1970s there was a festival called Musica Nova, during which the orchestra where I played, featured new pieces in what we referred to (tongue in cheek) as ‘their first and last’ performances. This very often proved indeed to be an accurate description of them

  • anon says:

    To put things in perspective:

    In order to hear 40 world premieres once, one had to listen to Brahm’s 2nd Symphony 34 times. And the the rest of the top 10 are dominated by the other Brahms symphonies (and Beethoven, his 9th clocks in at 26 times).

    (I guess Brahms can finally get over his inferiority complex, his symphonies are programmed more than Beethoven’s.)

    Critics often sing the praises of Berlin by saying that Berlin owns Brahms. I never realized ownership meant Berlin literally had to play him non-stop.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Brahms’ symphonies have been liberated from the heavy, muddy performing styles which kept his music in the shadows of Wagner, Strauss and Mahler who pulled many more stops on their organ. His idea of the orchestra was classical, and the influence of the early music movement which has clarified Beethoven considerably, also had a positive influence on Brahms interpretation. An orchestra playing Brahms well, demonstrates its qualities as hardly any other music. In spite of it’s ‘conservative’ aura – in theory, not in practice – it is orchestral music of a genius, offering the orchestra the means to show-off its best qualities. Somehow it is the quintessential orchestral music.

  • Victor Marshall says:

    In case anyone is interested, the link of works performed, premieres and new hires omits the name of principal horn David Cooper who started September 2017.
    Although the BPO website does include him.

  • Don Ciccio says:

    What happened to the Berlin Philharmonic concert database, anyway? Why did they took it offline?

  • Rob says:

    Perhaps he will finally do the Elgar symphonies now he’s back on home turf.

  • Ellingtonia says:

    Why wait for Rattle in Elgar when you can have Petrenko……………

  • Deborah Mawer says:

    The worst culprits of ‘playing premieres of pieces which will never be resurrected by anybody’ are surely the Arditti Quartet. Closely followed by Rostropovich who commissioned around 250 cello concertos, a large proportion of which have gathered dust.

  • TI says:

    I thought that he rebalanced the BPO’s repertoire rather well.

    He didn’t revolutionise it like he did the CBSO (and didn’t need to), but brought it back to a natural (and relevant) evolution.

    Just my two cents worth !

  • Robert Bryan says:

    Rattle was an unmitigated disaster for the BPO, both in terms of technicality and musicality. I still can’t understand why he’s so revered – but that’s just me.