The Berlin Phil’s conductor gets my vote
While I was reading music at Birmingham University from 1994 to 1997, Simon Rattle was enjoying his ‘golden age’ at the helm of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. He had been appointed principal conductor and artistic adviser back in 1980, but four years before I arrived in the city, he was made the orchestra’s music director and consequently appeared even more committed to raising the reputation of the CBSO to that of a world-class orchestra. During my first year at University, he was rewarded for his efforts by receiving a knighthood, no less. I was young and impressionable, and Sir Simon was, to me, a god, an idol, capable of transforming an orchestra into a thrilling, powerful vehicle of expression. (I was rather taken with his wild, curly – and, at that time, mahogany brown – hair, too.)
During my University years, I was determined to follow a career as an orchestral musician. I took lessons with Colin Lilley, who was – and still is – second flautist with the CBSO, and I took every opportunity to hear the orchestra in concert. Their sound seemed youthful, fresh, vibrant – and could sock you in the face when the music required it. When, during my third year, I heard about a stewarding job at Symphony Hall – the CBSO’s fabulous new home, which had opened just a few years earlier in 1991 – I didn’t hesitate. For several nights a week, I could hear my favourite orchestra live in concert and get paid for the privilege!
I witnessed many wonderful concerts during that time, most of them conducted by Rattle. I recall a particularly moving Britten War Requiem with the late, great Robert Tear and the wonderful Simon Keenlyside, and a momentous Berlioz Damnation of Faust with Maria Ewing and Willard White. I also remember seeing a teenage Sarah Chang perform on that vast Symphony Hall stage, as well as Rattle’s protégé, a young and spritely Daniel Harding, tackling The Rite of Spring from memory (I was serious impressed).
Since my University days, I have followed Rattle’s career with interest and not a little pride. When he was appointed chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic in 1999, I inwardly cheered – he deserved it. And when he came under fire from the critics, I fiercely defended him to anyone who would listen.
I’ve since heard him conduct the Berlin Phil on several occasions. Two concerts at the Proms stand out. In 2006, he conducted a Hanspeter Kyburz premiere, Debussy Preludes arranged by Colin Matthews and – the highlight for me – two Mozart symphonies, concluding with No 40. The sound Rattle coaxed from his orchestra could not have been more different from his CBSO days – more refined, understated and elegant, with pinpoint accuracy from the woodwind, but still raw and exciting when it needed to be.
In 2010, I heard Rattle and the Berliners again, in Schoenberg’s Five Orchestral Pieces, Webern’s Six Pieces for Orchestra and Berg’s Three Orchestral Pieces – linked without pause. This was precision playing, yet sparkling, too – and audience-goers reluctantly admired the risky programming strategy. As for me, I was reminded that, while Rattle’s wiry mop had dramatically changed colour, his zeal, enthusiasm and respect for the music and his fellow musicians had not.
On disc, Rattle has equally made an impact. Among the countless Gramophone Awards he has acquired over the years are Record of the Year in 1988 for his Mahler Symphony No 2 with the CBSO and again in 2000 for his Mahler 10 with the Berlin Phil. His championing of Schoenberg has resulted in a win in the 1995 Orchestral category for Chamber Symphony No 1 with the CBSO and in the 2002 Choral category for Gurrelieder with the Berlin Phil. Most recently, he won the 2007 Choral category for his Brahms Ein Deutsches Requiem, again with the Berlin Phil.
Rattle continues to perform and record prolifically, and I feel proud to have witnessed him at the start of it all, before he was pinched by Berlin, when he was sitting on the cusp of a wave that was to sweep him away from his post in Birmingham and on to even bigger, better things. Does he deserve a place in Gramophone’s Hall of Fame? You bet he does.
Sarah Kirkup is deputy editor of Gramophone. She plays flute and piano, and sings with her local church choir. Sarah is a fan of ballet and contemporary dance, and attends as many productions - particularly at Covent Garden - as she can.