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Rattle On

Will Sir Simon Rattle save classical music as we know it? The new leader of the Berlin Philharmonic is off to a (mostly) promising start.

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Partners in Crime: Michael Hayden, left, is Prince Hal and Kevin Kline is Falstaff in the Lincoln Center Theater production of Henry IV.  

The British have always made much of their musical heroes, promoting them with a vigor that sometimes leaves critics on this side of the Atlantic unconvinced if not downright baffled. If you read about Sir Simon Rattle in the English press, you might think that this youngish (48) conductor is the shining knight who will single-handedly rescue classical music from the edge of oblivion. His appointment as the Berlin Philharmonic’s music director has been celebrated as a blessed pairing: the world’s greatest conductor with the world’s greatest orchestra. EMI, which has faithfully recorded Rattle from the beginning of his career, clearly expects wonderful things to happen. Sir Simon is one of the very few big-time conductors still able to record pretty much whatever he wants, most recently a complete set of Beethoven symphonies with the Vienna Philharmonic.

For some reason, New York has thus far proved oddly resistant to the Rattle magic. His visits here over the years with his orchestra from Birmingham, the Midlands city where he won his golden reputation back home, were always rather coolly received, and he has never conducted the New York Philharmonic. Perhaps all that will change now that the Berlin Philharmonic has added its own special allure to the Rattle mystique—Carnegie Hall was packed for the three concerts Rattle conducted there with the orchestra not long ago, and without the added attractions of glamorous soloists or glitzy programming.

My own experience with Rattle has been mixed. At the very least, one always has the feeling that he has a valid musical point to make and is ready to take a risk—and that he works hard at being the best possible musician he can be. But sometimes even that’s not enough, and the opening concert sounded lackluster to my ears. There was the usual gentle thematic underlay that characterizes most Rattle programs, in this case the suggestions of Central European folk song that lurk in Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta, Ligeti’s Violin Concerto, and Beethoven’s Pastoral symphony. That’s all very fine, but when the Bartók is so manicured that it loses its dangerous edge and the Beethoven merely meanders, didactic points tend to get lost. Tasmin Little, on the other hand, was an inspired soloist in the Ligeti, exploring this continually surprising sound world with a thrilling creative intelligence.

Program two focused on music written for Paris over a span of more than two centuries: two Haydn symphonies (Nos. 88 and 90), Debussy’s La Mer, and Henri Dutilleux’s Correspondances for soprano and orchestra (the composer, now 87, was on hand). Although the French connection seemed a bit tenuous and not especially instructive, the music and performances were sensational. Like Bernstein before him, Rattle is a born Haydn interpreter who knows precisely how to draw out the wit, surprise, and warm humanity of these great symphonies, while the new Dutilleux score is a gorgeous extension of Debussy’s colorist devices, and Rattle savored every one.

The best came last: a pairing of the final symphonies by Sibelius and Schubert, the first a compact single-movement statement and the other a miracle of expansive thematic development. Both were specialties of Rattle’s predecessors in Berlin, but they came off sounding fresh and new here in performances as finely chiseled and urgently shaped as one could possibly wish. After hearing this concert, the possibility that Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic might save the world didn’t seem so far-fetched after all.


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