So not all Berliners were crazy about Rattle

So not all Berliners were crazy about Rattle


norman lebrecht

June 22, 2018

There is a bit of a flutter going on in the classical coterie about an article in VAN magazine which makes clear that Simon Rattle’s long tenure at the Berlin Philharmonic was not altogether harmonious.

Under the strapline ‘The orchestra doesn’t look at him anymore,’ the article quotes a number of dissidents (unnamed) and supporters (named) who confirm that the orchestra was divided about his leadership. Nothing new in that, nor surprising. Rattle was elected by a 60:40 margin over Daniel Barenboim and that proportion remained the same when tested in a second vote a decade later.

I made a film for the BBC in the early 2000s analysing mutterings of discontent in the orchestra and the audience, and I got roundly scolded for it in just about every corner of the classical world – because we don’t talk about such things, do we? Candour, I described elsewhere, was ever one of Rattle’s finest qualities.

I’m delighted to see that VAN has published such a frank and balanced account of a central musical relationship which, as Rattle himself admits, was never easy. And I’m appalled to find that the ostriches of classical music are still flaunting their thinking parts at anyone who dares to write that not everything in the garden is rosy.

Want to know what’s wrong with classical music? The ostriches.

They never seem to grow up.


  • barry guerrero says:

    Whatever, Norman. It’s over with now. I’ve got my Warner cd of Rachmaninoff’s “The Bells” and “Symphonic Dances” out of this whole venture and that’s good enough for me. The Mahler 2 remake with the BPO is pretty darn good too. I’ve head worse records than their coupling of Mussorgsky’s “Pictures” with the Borodin 2nd (a really underrated symphony). So not everything could have been bad.

    I don’t like getting involved in these kinds of things because there’s waaaay too much politics in symphony orchestras and opera companies. I’ve said it before: all I care about are the musical results.

    • Derek says:

      +1 for musical results (and the Borodin 2nd symphony)

    • barry guerrero says:

      Some soloists fit well within an orchestra, but many are ill-suited. String players, in particular, would much rather be making chamber music. In an orchestra, besides being in a more corporate environment, mild mannered string players have to deal with lots of noise from the brass and percussion. We’ve all seen those protective shields that some players – usually the harps and the back row of woodwinds – have placed on the back of their chairs.

      The very back row is usually more content, unless the conductor exhausts them – usually by playing loud or high passages over and over – or is constantly telling them never to play anything louder than mezzo forte. For percussion and low brass players, an orchestra is usually the only source of income you can get, other than teaching or the occasional ‘casual’ gig (or going into military bands).

      Put all this together and it’s little wonder that orchestras can be politically charged and contentious. Chamber music is really the main corner stone of classical instrumental music in terms of truly developing players, but it’s becoming increasingly more difficult and expensive for good chamber groups to travel (think of the known risks to their instruments via the airlines!). That particular problem may be less severe in Europe and England, where distances between major metropolitan areas is generally much less and they can stay off of airplanes. Still, . . .

  • C Porumbescu says:

    Scandalous cover up! Why do we pretend that all is rosy in the garden? Shock!

    Or, alternatively: “After two decades, a minority of employees in a large organisation grumble about the boss”. But that’s not really remarkable enough to be news, is it?

    As others have said, change the names and this story could have been written about every principal conductor and every orchestra on earth. Or any company and any boss. Which kind of suggests it’s a non-story.

  • anon says:

    The story is very thinly sourced: 2 anonymous sources (one of whom is a substitute player!), and 2 willing to go on the record (both of whom resigned long ago).

    To the extent a source is cited for a particular claim, there is no corroboration by any other source.

    And some of the claims are simply unattributed to any source at all (like the claim the Jaap van Zweden was dismissed in less than an hour… says who?).

    It all boils down to 4 sources with their own personal opinions. So what? Hell, I can find 4 similar sources from the Kremlin to criticize Putin (even with the inherent threat of being poisoned to death, lol!)

    • John Borstlap says:

      It would be very strange and a reason for serious psychiatric examination if a symphony orchestra would consist of people who always think the same.

      I had some experience myself with Sir Rattle where he showed some quite unprofessional behavior, reinforcing my impression of an unbalanced conductor (in more than one sense). Leading the BPO is not quite the type of position which offers calm reassurance.

      • Herbert Gussett says:

        Did Rattle also “tart up” Beethoven with extra instruments like that old fraud H v K, who used 8 horns in the 5th. ? Beethoven asks for 2 only. I ask this as it seems a problem since the late 19th century where conductors like to tinker with others music, thinking it needs tarting up as for H v K those box sets have him emblazoned in bold type and poor old LVB in lower case. Gunter Wand, a conductor who was the opposite of H v K hated conductors who tarted up scores, he recounted attending a post war Beethoven 5 conducted by Furtwaengler who had the gall to add an extra bass line. “Throwing sugar to the apes” is what old Gunter said. One consequence of the HIP movement is to avoid all this tarting up, if you listen to the recent Wiener Akademie Beethoven series on gut or Bernius in Stuttgart at least they manage to capture more closely the sound LVB wanted. Check out the Gunter Wand Missa Solemnis on Testment, 1965, Gurzenich Orchester & Choir. Wand drilled them both with 30 rehearsals the result is miles better that the 1966 H v K effort. You can hear the latin text unlike the K.

        • Herr Doktor says:

          Oh brother….

          (As my mother repeatedly told me, when you have nothing nice to say, say nothing.)

          • Martin Atherton says:

            I could not agree with you more, Herr Doktor. I always think it’s interesting that those who affect to despise Karajan seem to have little else to talk about.

          • Real Ale Man says:

            Martin Atherton, you fool. H V K was a complete fraud wise up there. No one wants to have their meals prepared by the same old Chef, why would you want K for all seasons. He is like Wetherspoon sterile sound, no atmosphere at all

          • Martin Atherton says:

            If I want advice about beer, Real Ale Man, I might come to you. Otherwise I’m fine, thanks.

        • M2N2K says:

          It never fails to amuse me when people talk about “the sound LvB wanted” as if they just had a conversation with him yesterday discussing this very subject.

          • John Borstlap says:

            The point is, that he never listened to them because of his hearing problem. But this morning I heard him saying that he dispised them.

          • Martin Atherton says:

            Norman, I think you may have a troll on your hands. “Real Ale Man”, who seems to have disabled the option to reply to his ale-imbued comment above, has posted in similar culinary terms in the recent past, only last time he called me his “pal” and went by a different id. He’s entitled to his opinion, as I am to mine, but without resorting to personal attacks.

  • Anthony Kershaw says:

    It’s typical of all orchestras and the guy on the box. For six months, it’s a honeymoon. Then they want to carve your intestines out with a spoon!

    These cherry picked, OTR ‘quotes’ (not Baborak’s) are silly.

    If the conductor isn’t pissing somebody off in the orchestra, he’s not doing his job.

    Other than cruelty, of which there’s enough, musicians should just get on with it. We are incessant frigging whiners.

  • MacroV says:

    Surprise, Surprise. Some of the people in an orchestra he led for 16 years weren’t fans. Show him with a 70-80% disapproval rating and you might have something.

  • Deborah Mawer says:

    Odd, there’s a BBC thing on Sir S’s top 12 composers, and even with a dozen he’s not able to fit in Beethoven,

    Ades yes – Boulez yes – even Puccini yes

    • John Borstlap says:

      Rattle’s opinions about 20C music are merely the chewing upon the most conventional ideas, the postwar modernist narrative, which fits so neatly a mind which does not want to think for itself.

      • barry guerrero says:

        You really believe that, John? See, I think one of the best things about Rattle is how he seems invested in the ‘modern’ works he performs, and just how eloquently he can discuss them. There’s a whole set of dvd’s with him doing just that.

        You may not like his choice of more ‘modern’ works, but I’m not sure he should accused of not thinking for himself. It seems to me he’s done plenty of thinking.

        • John Borstlap says:

          As this unbearable video shows, R merely repeats the post-1945 modernist narrative, which is backwards-projected myth: with Tristan, music became unmoored and with the Second Viennese School (crazy pretentious academic posturing) music, mind you: THE music, THE only music which counted in the NEW Century, entered its truly modern stage, unravelling its foundations (as if there never was a real Ravel). Everything had to be measured against the Gold Standard of the myth of the avantgarde heroism of destructive ugliness, because that was the heart of the new age.

          At a Parisian gathering of musicians in the thirties, one of them claimed that new music should express the ugliness of the times. Upon which Ravel, who was present, asked: ‘Why does an ugly time need expression?’

          I once attended a concert with the BPO which revealed R’s musical problems: first half, a modernist monstruosity of 45 minutes of pulverizing nonsensical sound art, consisting of disjoint short ejaculations by mostly individual players, inflicting the composer’s ‘progressive’ fantasies upon a dumbfounded audience, and after the interval where the audience tried to restore some emotional equilibrum (I remember the worried faces), Mahler IV which sounded stiff, tired, and with the forced efforts of a convalescent patient trying to overcome his recent trauma. The internal ensemble of the orchestra was thoroughly disrupted and the players could not find the coherence and Schwung Mahler required, however R tried his best to get the sounds from the traumatized victims.

          • John Borstlap says:

            Rattle has dug-out Stockhausen’s “Gruppen” for performance in the Tate Modern in London, together with two other conductors – three orchestras in total. It’s one of the classics of sonic art, very expensive, and very nonsensical as music – it has to be heard as something like a hughe volière visited by a group of hyenas, or as an accident in a boiler factory. So, Tate Modern is the perfect place.

            “Somewhere in Stockhausen’s mind, Mr. Rattle concluded, ‘there was this idea that we will create this new music which is utterly not to do with the history that came before it.'”

            So, Sir R thinks it is a form of music – this by a conductor, it should be noted. But it is not music at all – so much for R’s expertise. What is interesting about such idea if it is something different from music? And a conductor of music takes it on, together with his two modernist collegues. For people who have no understandging whatsoever of music, such performance will be a nice thrill, like a safari through a rough savanna.


    • Saxon Broken says:

      The list is not his “top 12 composers”, but the twelve who shaped him as a conductor. Personally, I think it odd that he included Brahms and Bruckner, given how little feel he has for that music.

  • Bruce says:

    Some people thrive on conflict and others hate it. That includes conductors: some will respect you more if you argue with them, and some will respect you less.

    Baborak’s quote “I’m not a follower” is an example of the fact that some people are never going to be happy in an orchestra, no matter how good their situation is. “Do it my way because I’m the conductor” is, in the end, a valid argument in the context of an orchestra rehearsal — maybe not one that satisfies all the musicians, but valid.

    I had a conversation about that once with a very well-known orchestral woodwind principal: I asked her “what do you do when the conductor asks you to do something you disagree with?” Her response was: “The way I see it, my job is to do what the conductor wants, in the most beautiful way I can.”

    Personally, I like that approach: it takes a lot of the musician’s ego out of the picture (although you can still retain plenty of self-esteem based on your own skill level), and — assuming you don’t mess up — places responsibility for the finished musical product on the conductor, where it belongs.

    Obviously there is another school of thought out there that says “I was hired because of what I bring to the music; the conductor should let me do what I was hired to do.”

    And of course there are conductors with both points of view out there: some like to hear what musicians have to contribute (maybe you’ll come up with something interesting they never thought of, that will make the whole thing better), and some are only interested in imprinting their own stamp on the music (they already know what they want you to do and are not interested in your personal interpretation).

    Both points of view are valid, IMHO, but — as with any relationship — neither approach is going to be successful with every partner.

    • Phillip says:

      Bruce- not related to this article, but please see my final comment on the “Lucretia” article in which I offer a mea culpa and hope to close the books on any perceived enmity. Best regards.

  • Jon H says:

    The Digital Concert Hall is certainly one of the highlights of this era. Rattle showed another side to the orchestra compared to his two predecessors. Even for the Berlin Phil, it’s wrong musically to go too far in one style of direction. It has made certain orchestras distinctive, but in certain other repertoire, it gets in the way. And when players are as good as they are in Berlin, you want them to be able to borrow from everything (while still having something of a German style).

  • Greg says:

    No news here. This dynamic is probably evident in every musical ensemble at every level of proficiency. You can’t please everyone and the range of abilities and experiences found in a group ensures that they will have different reactions to a director (just as they probably do about football, politics, and anything else).

  • Wesley says:

    The VAN article suggests that the BPO needs to take its head out of the sand and accept that it’s not the best orchestra in the world anymore. It may not even be the best orchestra in Germany…

  • Ben says:

    Berliners didn’t excite me with most of their Simon.

    P.S. Top musicians don’t share dirty laundry outside the “family”. Therefore, even if there are only a few out of 100+ to spill their guts, it’s likely a bad situation.

    • Charlotte says:

      Guess what: None of the 128 spilled anything in this article, if you read it carefully. It’s only anonymus sources “around” the orchestra and two former musicians. Seems like nobody from the actual orchestra wanted to talk to them…

  • msc says:

    60/40 sounds just fine to me. I cannot imagine many other conductors getting much better results after ten years. Anyone with a strong, or even distinct, personality is bound to annoy a fair number of people.
    Musically, I’d say the Rattle era has been pretty successful. After Petrenko it might be time to return to someone more focussed on the core classical repertoire (although that is not to say that I don’t expect to hear some great Beethoven from Petrenko).

  • Alexander Tarak says:

    To quote Carlos Kleiber: I was never rattled by Simon….

    • Sue says:

      Hard to disagree with beloved Carlos!! I expect Simon was too white, too male, too privileged, to cis gendered. Their current choice should tick more of the politically correct boxes. Sorry, but I’m very cynical about Germany these days.

    • barry guerrero says:

      To quote Simon, “I never got to see Carlos because he always cancelled”.

  • muslit says:

    there must have been something decent about him, although i don’t know what.

  • bluepumpkin says:

    “Want to know what’s wrong with classical music? The ostriches,” I hear you say. The “ostriches”, however, are those that believe fervently – as they always have done – that the Berlin, the Vienna or whatever must be THE orchestra. We desperately want heroes, we crave the Old Days (whatever they were). We want maestros (or is that maestri?) to worship, we are desolate that we have no cult leader, no deity at whose shrine we can worship. Some of the most exciting playing, in fact, comes from baroque orchestras and their ever imaginative conductors.

  • M2N2K says:

    Over the last three decades there have been very few symphonic conductors as good overall as Sir Simon Rattle is in his rather wide repertoire and possibly none better than he is.

    • Saxon Broken says:

      I think Rattle has many talents, but being “the best”, whatever that means is rather contentious. He is widely believed to have successfully encouraged outreach etc., and to have modernised the repertoire by playing more 20th century and Modernist pieces. He is also considered great in Mahler. But there has also been widespread disappointment with his conducting of the core 19th century German repertoire, for which he seems to have less interest.

  • A Horse says:

    Soak up everything with a sponge and equanimity to enjoy a much quieter and peaceful life!

  • mr oakmountain says:

    A different perspective: While in “humbler” orchestras the soloists know that they sometimes have to accept that the conductor will impose their own view on them, the BPO/VPO/NYPO soloists expect their conductors to be fantastic/inspirational/perfect AND let them do the things the way they want …

    • John Borstlap says:

      Story from the VPO: players entering the hall for the 1st rehearsel with famous conductor X. ‘What is he playing today?’ one of them asks another, who answers: ‘I don’t know what HE is playing but WE are going to play Barhms Two’.

  • anon says:

    In Rattle’s 16 year tenure, Berlin played the Brahms symphonies about 100 times.

    If I had to eat broccoli 100 times a year whenever I go out to a restaurant, I too would require that the chef be inspiring, extraordinary, innovative with my broccoli.

    But there are only so many ways to make broccoli, especially if all chefs must follow the same recipe written by Brahms to make broccoli.

    So whose fault is it? Me who insists on serving broccoli to my guests, or me who judges the chefs just on their broccoli?

    • John Borstlap says:

      Good point.

      Rattle did Brahms quite well – I heard a beautiful IV by him and the BPO.

      But indeed you can have too much even of a good thing.

  • Peter Owen says:

    I wouldn’t mind betting that a lot of the orchestra’s disaffection came from all the contemporary music Rattle programmed; for God’s sake, quite a lot of it was British.

  • Iain Scott says:

    Result! I’m just off to buy a fine wine. Why ? I bet myself it would not be long before Slipped Disc posted a whersht article about Rattle.
    At the end of the day he’s a great musician and this is a scandal sheet.

  • Richard Craig says:

    I make no apologies for being an avid Karajan fan, but even I have to admit that things have to move on and as we already know the relationship between Karajan and the BPO where souring towards the end of his life, but make no mistake in there hayday this relationship was an unbeatable combination,Simon Rattle has under his tenure bought the orchestra into the 21st century he has changed the sound (that beautiful sonorous sounds that the strings and double basses made under Karajan) am going to hear Rattle in a few weeks time conducting the LSO. in Edinburgh w

  • Richard Craig says:

    I make no apologies for being an avid Karajan fan, but even I have to admit that things have to move on and as we already know the relationship between Karajan and the BPO where souring towards the end of his life, but make no mistake in there hayday this relationship was an unbeatable combination,Simon Rattle has under his tenure bought the orchestra into the 21st century he has changed the sound (that beautiful sonorous sounds that the strings and double basses made under Karajan) am going to hear Rattle in a few weeks time conducting the LSO. in Edinburgh w

  • Max Raimi says:

    If the President of the US has a 60% approval rating, he warrants congratulations. Of course that means more than 100 million people don’t like him. I have never heard of a universally popular Music Director in any orchestra. If ever there was a “Man Bites Dog” story, this is it.