Everyday Rather Live in Classic Eras

Gramophone’s Top 10 recordings of Simon Rattle at Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra

Debussy La mer. La boîte à joujoux (arr Caplet). Prélude à L’après-midi d’un faune. Three Préludes (arr C Matthews)

Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle 

Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic’s perfumed, pictorial 1964 recordings of Debussy’s Prélude à L’après-midi d’un faune and La mer have come to be revered – and rightly so, as they possess a remarkable frisson. Rattle’s interpretations, recorded live, are markedly less urgent; with nary a noise from the audience, one might even mistake them for studio recordings. Yet these new accounts, too, have the ability to engross and sometimes even astonish. Note, for example, the sinuous swoop of the flutes and clarinets at the beginning of ‘Jeux de vagues’ in La mer, or the shimmering rustle of strings at 1’00” in the Prélude – both almost tactile sensations.

Of course, one counts on Rattle to elucidate detail, and here the clarification of the music’s intricately layered textures is revelatory. Karajan appears more intent on blending colours, creating a kind of sonic kaleidoscope that, coupled with a strong narrative thrust, can make Debussy sound a little like Rimsky-Korsakov. Subtlety may be part of the issue. Karajan, for example, heightens dynamic contrast whereas Rattle grades the dynamics as per Debussy’s instructions (he’s one of the few conductors who seems to have noticed that there’s but one fortissimo in the Prélude).

The makeweights are especially valuable. There aren’t that many recordings of La boîte à joujoux in the catalogue and this zestful, gracefully droll performance is among the best. As in the Prélude andLa mer, the conductor’s supple tempo manipulations convey a real feeling of spontaneity. Colin Matthews’s scoring of three pianoPréludes evokes Debussy’s sound world with preternatural accuracy.

The turbulence of ‘Ce qu’a vu le vent d’Ouest’ and sparkle of ‘Feux d’artifice’ are most impressive, though ‘Feuilles mortes’, with its hauntingly desolate atmosphere, is perhaps finer still. In short, a dazzling disc. Andrew Farach-Colton

Schoenberg Gurrelieder

Karita Mattila sop Anne Sofie von Otter mez Thomas Moser ten Philip Langridge ten Thomas Quasthoff bass-bar Berlin Radio Chorus; MDR Radio Chorus, Leipzig; Ernst Senff Choir; Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle 

Apparently Rattle told the Berlin Philharmonic to play Gurrelieder ‘as though it were Daphnis et Chloé’, which sounds crazy until you listen to the result: indeed, the sonorities do rather often sound subtly and delicately French. It also seems obvious from this performance that he means it when he says that Gurrelieder is ‘the world’s largest string quartet’. It’s only rarely that the full resources of Schoenberg’s gargantuan orchestra are called for (all the more satisfyingly vast when they are). This has an effect on the soloists: none is required to force. Karita Mattila gains from this intimate approach, floating over exquisite orchestral textures in her first song and touching the second very lightly, though in the fourth she can manage both a splendid opening out and an ethereal close. Anne Sofie von Otter has a brighter voice than many exponents of the Wood Dove, better at quieter expressiveness than the wild, gutturally expressed grief of Brigitte Fassbaender, still unrivalled in this role in Riccardo Chailly’s recording. Langridge is vividly characterful as Klaus-Narr, Thomas Quasthoff a fine Peasant and a vehement Speaker. The choral singing is first-class, the orchestral playing superfine and the recording – a mixture of live and studio performances – both detailed and spacious. There are several fine accounts of Gurrelieder in the current catalogue, of which Chailly’s has for a long while been a favourite; his soloists are at least as fine as Rattle’s, but Rattle’s control of rubato, his readiness to adopt more relaxed tempi and to allow silences to register are all tangible advantages. He now replaces Chailly at the head of the list. Michael Oliver

Brahms Ein deutsches Requiem

Dorothea Röschmann sop Thomas Quasthoff bar Berlin Radio Chorus; Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle

This is a lovely performance, sensitive to the work’s consolatory mood, free-moving and sweetly sung. Rattle’s reading does not obscure Brahms’s debt to Schütz, Bach and the other great pre-classical German Protestant composers, but it stresses more the work’s roots in the new German school: to the influence, above all, of Brahms’s cherished and much mourned mentor, Robert Schumann.

This is not a period performance in the sense of attempting to conjure forth period sounds. The opening colloquy for violas and divided cellos is pure Berlin (Nikisch would have recognised the sound, as would the young Karajan). The singing is awed and reverential, with ravishing pianissimos from the superb Berlin Radio Chorus. What we have here is not authenticity of sound but authenticity of feeling and effect. Has there ever been a swifter performance of the fourth movement, ‘Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen’, or a more calming one? A flowing tempo which creates a sense of deep repose suggests that most sought-after of all qualities in an interpreter, the art that disguises art.

Throughout, Rattle strikes a shrewd balance between the work’s affective nature and its narrative power. Tempi are brisk in the two movements with baritone solo which carry much of the work’s doctrine. The great choral codas to the second, third and sixth movements are also superbly judged. In the great choral peroration to the penultimate movement, space is provided for the words to tell, as Brahms clearly intends.

Thomas Quasthoff, who seems a little out of sorts, is no match for Fischer-Dieskau on Klemperer’s unignorably splendid recording; and Dorothea Röschmann’s reedy tone and tight vibrato in ‘Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit’ may not appeal either. Still, the movement is so persuasively shaped that, heard in context, it, too, ‘speaks’ to us through the sonic squall. Internal balances between choir, soloists and orchestra are generally well judged: apt to a performance which treats this great memorial prose poem with a mixture of acumen and affection that is entirely special. Richard Osborne

R Strauss Ein Heldenleben. Le bourgeois gentilhomme

Guy Braunstein vn Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle 

Ein Heldenleben — selected comparisons: Staatskapelle Dresden, Kempe (12/92) (EMI) 764342-2; BPO, Karajan (3/97) (EMI) 566108-2

Le bourgeois gentilhomme — selected comparison: Staatskapelle Dresden, Kempe (12/92) (EMI) 764346-2

Ein Heldenleben was always a favourite party-piece of Herbert von Karajan, so the challenge to his successor, Simon Rattle, is all the more formidable. It says much for Rattle’s achievement in Berlin that the result in this live recording offers the keenest rivalry for either of the outstanding versions I list.

The heroic opening section already establishes Rattle’s approach as a degree more flexible, more warmly expressive than Karajan’s. Karajan is certainly warm, but he generally keeps his expressiveness within steady speeds, where Rattle is a degree freer, with rhythms subtly pointed.

Typically, he treats the violinist, Guy Braunstein, as a genuine soloist, encouraging him to play with the sort of expressive freedom one expects in a concerto, while the equally brilliant Michel Schwalbe for Karajan tends to stay within the set tempo even in the most elaborate sections of the long solo representing the composer’s wife. Braunstein is the more individual, and so are the various wind soloists in the piece, including those in the second section representing the composer’s enemies, the critics.

What remains a constant is the opulence of the Berlin Philharmonic sound. The 1974 EMI recording of the Karajan version remains impressive for its time but the modern digital recording is far richer still, starting with the most resonant E flat in the bass at the very start and covering a formidable dynamic range, bringing out the subtlety of Rattle’s control and the refinement of the orchestra’s playing. The fine Kempe version dates from rather earlier than Karajan’s and, quite apart from the less wide-ranging recording, his is a less forceful, rather more relaxed reading than either Rattle’s or Karajan’s. In his overall timing Rattle takes a couple of minutes longer than either, with the extra breadth due at least in part to the expressive freedom encouraged in a live performance, something that clearly adds to the magnetism of the finished recording.

The fill-up is a generous one, bringing the overall timing of the disc to an exceptional 82 minutes. The engineers, though working in the Philharmonie as in Heldenleben, have rightly balanced the microphones to give a much more intimate result with the chamber ensemble of Le bourgeois gentilhomme. This time Rattle’s performance is more relaxed than Kempe’s, with speeds rather broader, making for a performance that delightfully captures the light-heartedness of this music, with delectable rhythmic pointing in the 18th-century pastiche. Edward Greenfield

Britten Serenade. Les illuminations, Op 18. Nocturne, Op 60.

Ian Bostridge ten Radek Baborák hn Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle

This recording offers a profoundly considered and technically immaculate traversal of Britten’s three great and varied cycles for tenor and orchestra, conceived with Pears’s voice in mind. Bostridge’s particular gift for lighting texts from within, and projecting so immediately their images, comes into its own arrestingly in theNocturne. With his vocal agility and vital word-painting at their most assured – allied to surely the most virtuoso account of the obbligato parts yet heard, and Rattle supremely alert – this reading sets a standard hard to equal. Add a perfectly balanced recording and you have an ideal result.

Not that the accounts of the earlier cycles are far behind in going to the heart of the matter. Bostridge catches all the fantasy and irony ofLes illuminations and projects the text with a biting delivery that stops just the right side of caricature. Rattle and his orchestra are once again aware of Britten’s subtleties of rhythm and instrumentation.

The Serenade, most easily accessible of the three works, demonstrates the advantages of recording after live performances. Everything seems fresh-minted and immediate, nowhere more so than in Radek Baborák’s bold yet sensitive horn playing. Some of the verbal over-emphases that are now part of Bostridge’s vocal persona might not have been approved by the composer but for the most part they second the plangent beauty of his voice, which is evident throughout these very personal and satisfying interpretations. Bostridge writes illuminating notes in the booklet, too, adding to the disc’s value. Alan Blyth

Mahler Symphony No 5 

Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle 

Mahler’s Fifth is a terror to bring off but, brought off, is a joy beyond measure. It made a fine nuptial offering for Rattle and the Berliners on September 7, 2002 – festive yet challenging, a tragi-comic revel and a high-wire act to boot. ‘The individual parts are so difficult,’ wrote Mahler, ‘they call for the most accomplished soloists.’ Rattle brought the prodigious first horn to the apron of the stage for his obbligato contribution in the Scherzo. Mengelberg’s conducting score, which Mahler used for the work’s Amsterdam premiere in 1906, has an annotation to this effect, and the practice was followed at the work’s English premiere in 1945, but we’re left wondering what would have happened if Rattle hadn’t brought the player forward. EMI’s recording is splendidly explicit but the horn section, which plays a crucial role at key moments, seems oddly distant on CD.

The tutti sound Rattle draws from the orchestra is clean and sharply profiled, not unlike the Mahler sound Rafael Kubelík tended to favour. Rattle’s tempo for the Adagietto is a good one by modern standards (not too slow) and the string-playing has a lovely diaphanous quality, but you may find the playing over-nuanced.

Nowadays it isn’t unusual to hear rhythm and line sacrificed to detail and nuance as old-established symphony orchestras are made to rethink their readings by conductors schooled in the arcana of ancient performance practice. Rattle has done his fair share of this. What’s interesting about this live Mahler Fifth is the degree to which the detail is absorbed and the line maintained.

Like most latter-day conductors, Rattle tends to underplay the march element in the first movement. Mahler in his 1905 piano roll, Walter, and Haitink in his superb 1969 Concertgebouw recording all preserve this. Some may find the approach too dry-eyed in the long-drawn string threnody at fig 2. But an excess of feeling can damage both opening movements (the second is a mirror of the first) if the larger rhythm is obscured. Rattle, like Barbirolli and Bernstein in his superb Vienna Philharmonic recording, treats the threnody more as a meditation than a march, but the pulse isn’t lost and the attendant tempi are good. The frenzied B flat minor Trio is particularly well judged. The second movement is superb (the diminished horn contribution notwithstanding) and none but the most determined sceptic could fail to thrill to the sense of adventure and well-being Rattle and his players bring to the Scherzo and finale, even if Barbirolli (studio) and Bernstein (live) both reach the finishing line in rather more eloquent and orderly fashion than this talented but still occasionally fragile-sounding Berlin ensemble.

As a memento, the CD is a triumph of organisation and despatch. As a performance and as a recording, it has rather more character and bite than Abbado’s much admired 1993 Berlin version. Indeed, it can safely be ranked among the half dozen or so finest performances on record. It isn’t perfect: but do you know of one that is? Richard Osborne

Holst The Planets (with C Matthews Pluto, The Renewer) DeanKomarov’s Fall Pintscher Towards Osiris Saariaho Asteroid 4179 ‘Toutatis’ Turnage Ceres

Berlin Radio Choir; Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle

Near the beginning of his EMI career, Simon Rattle recorded his firstPlanets. It is excellent but next to this spectacular new account it rather pales away. That 1982 recording cannot compare with the blazing brilliance, warmth and weight of the new one, which fully brings out the glory of the Berlin sound. Some may find the wide dynamic hard to cope with domestically – too loud at climaxes if the soft passages are to be clearly heard – but the body of sound is most impressive, with string pianissimos in ‘Venus’, ‘Saturn’ and ‘Neptune’ of breathtaking beauty.

Rattle’s interpretation has intensified over the years. ‘Mars’ is more menacing and the dance rhythms of ‘Jupiter’ and ‘Uranus’ have an extra lift. Clearly the Berlin players have taken to this British work in the way they did for Karajan. Colin Matthews’s Pluto is given an exceptionally bold performance which exploits the extremes.

 The second disc has four works commissioned by Rattle, dubbed ‘Asteroids’. Kaija Saariaho, celebrating the asteroid Toutatis and its complex orbit, uses evocative textures and woodwind repetitions in ostinato patterns, much in line with Holst’s technique. Matthias Pintscher’s Towards Osiris is more individual, featuring a spectacular trumpet solo in celebration of the Egyptian deity who became ruler of the underworld. Again, the piece is reflective rather than dramatic. Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Ceres is energetic, with jazzy syncopations typical of the composer, while Komarov’s Fall by Brett Dean, formerly a viola player in the orchestra, builds up to an impressive climax before fading away on evocative trills. Rattle’s boldness in offering such unusual couplings is amply justified, even if most purchasers will concentrate on the superb version of a favourite piece. Edward Greenfield

Mahler Symphony No 9

Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle

In his previous recording of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, made live with the Vienna Philharmonic in 1993, Simon Rattle tapped into the music’s emotional extremes to produce a surprisingly volatile reading full of precipitous accelerandos and wrenching ritardandos. There’s some of that volatility in this new account from Berlin, too, though it’s certainly less pronounced. There are places where more tenderness wouldn’t come amiss: the entrance of the solo violin in the first movement’s recapitulation is so much sweeter in Vienna. But Rattle and the Berliners are also capable of taking one’s breath away. Listen later in the same movement, as they gather the seemingly chaotic tangle of melodic filaments together, creating a single, gigantic, darkly radiant chord.

The rustic dances in the second movement have a strong, rough-hewn quality, even if they sound slightly dour when compared with the more gemütlich charm of, say, Abbado’s Berlin recording. Rattle doesn’t push hard in the Rondo-Burleske until the end; instead, he aims for clarity and articulateness, and scrupulously observes all the dynamic twists and turns. It’s an effective approach, though less adrenalin-pumping than Karajan.

It’s in the final Adagio, however, that Rattle and his orchestra make the most powerful impact. The strings sound gorgeous, of course, yet there’s grit as well as radiance in their tone. And it’s only in the final pages that the earthy impurities are leeched, leaving a breath-like purity that ebbs into rapt silence. Andrew Farach-Colton

Stravinsky Symphony in Three Movements. Symphony of Psalms. Symphony in C

Berlin Radio Choir; Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle

The Symphony in Three Movements doesn’t so much start as erupt, and Sir Simon Rattle’s second recording of it has impressive immediacy, richer tonally than his rougher-edged 1980s recording with the CBSO but textually warmer and with more refined solos. Interesting points of comparison arise at around 4’00” into the first movement (chamber-like textures involving strings and winds) and the serene passage for strings and harp at 2’08” into the second movement, the relative earnestness of the earlier version replaced here by a true but ‘terrible beauty’. In comparison with conductors like Boulez and Gielen, Rattle offers the most polished option, mindful of both mood and structure, and beautifully engineered – but don’t forget Stravinsky’s own 1946 (New York Philharmonic) version, which reflects a new-born masterpiece in the heat of its creation.

Rattle’s Symphony of Psalms is very sensitively traced, with a rowdy account of the reveille-style ‘Laudate Dominum’ passage in the last movement. However, the real highlight of this CD is Rattle’s pressing but never impatient account of what in my view is Stravinsky’s greatest symphony, the terse and poignant Symphony in C, music forged in the wake of illness and death but that only ever suggests anguish, never confesses it. Tchaikovsky’s spirit looms large, especially in the first movement, at the onset of the angry central climax where Rattle and his Berliners achieve considerable intensity. Rattle focuses each episode without sounding episodic and shapes the Larghetto’s opening most poetically. Stravinsky himself is faster and lighter (especially on his second, stereo, recording) but Rattle gives us both urgency and tonal body. Henceforth, his is a digital front-runner. Rob Cowan

Tchaikovsky The Nutcracker

Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle

This recording of the complete Nutcracker ballet would seem to be Rattle’s first Tchaikovsky disc, and it is so good that you rather regret that he has not ventured into this repertoire before. One of the impressive aspects of this new two-disc set is that it is so ‘visual’. It conjures up in the mind’s ear the pictures of domestic Christmas bliss and petulance in the first act, and the multifarious enchantments of Confiturembourg in the second. There is a consistent sense here that Rattle has the ballet’s scenario and its detail firmly in view.

It is the first act of The Nutcracker that has the most dramatic cohesion. The second act is more of a hotchpotch in the scheme that Tchaikovsky had to follow but he responded with winning numbers that Rattle and the BPO relish, bringing virility to the ‘Trepak’, a lovely liquid sound to the ‘Dance of the Reed Pipes’and a radiant bloom to the ‘Waltz of the Flowers’.

The Berlin Philharmonic’s clarity and definition are immaculate. So, too, are the shadings of colour, crucial in a score where Tchaikovsky chose his instrumental timbres with such precision. When he broadens out in quasi-symphonic vein, as, for example, in the transformation scene at the end of Act 1, the Berlin sound is sensational.

For all the snags that Tchaikovsky encountered while writing The Nutcracker, it has become a perennial favourite, and this magnificent recording underlines its magical and musical magnetism.