He’s here wowing British audiences, but if we want to tempt the giant of classical music back for good from Germany, we might need to give him a world-class concert hall
It is no overstatement to say that Simon Rattle has had a greater direct impact on the arts worldwide than any other living Brit. No other citizen of this country has climbed the peak of the world’s greatest orchestra, the Berlin Philharmonic, while bringing young musicians from the destitute barrios of Latin America to play for it. No British city has undergone quite such a resurgence of music as did Birmingham during Rattle’s time there.
For the music writer Norman Lebrecht to call Rattle “the Tony Blair of music” completely misses the point: behind the usual cliches about Rattle’s mop of hair, good looks and geniality lies an intensity with music that last week astounded London audiences hoping he might soon return to take over the London Symphony Orchestra.
But last week Rattle also made noises and waves of a different kind in that regard: making it clear that his enthusiasm for a permanent post in London, which he has never held, would take into consideration his view that the city that claims to be a capital of music boasts no top-class concert hall. He told the BBC that the high-end conditions under which major European orchestras work are “on the wildest edges of science fiction in this country, particularly in London”.
Yet British audiences adore the man born in Merseyside in 1955 probably more than any other conductor. They see him as their own, even though he further suggests that if he did take the post in London he would not live there while his family are settled in Germany. He calls himself “deracinated”, a genuinely, quintessentially European, international citizen. He is a Liverpool fan, but supported both clubs when the Reds travelled to Berlin to play his adopted city’s team, Hertha Berlin.
Logically, then, Rattle calls his heimat of Liverpool a city that “looks seawards, smoked Irish, the offside of the known universe, and it always was”. Yet unlike another Liverpudlian musical superstar – pianist Paul Lewis, who grew up in tough Huyton – Rattle was raised in what he calls “the Jewish, liberal-voting suburbs around Sefton Park”. While Lewis’s father was an unemployed docker, Rattle’s was a Royal Navy commander.
Rattle showed early and remarkable musical talent and brilliance of mind. He describes himself as “a weird duck… an uncomfortable, overweight, intense boy with this huge passion”. As a child, he “went to every possible thing [he] could”, played by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, the orchestra then enjoying halcyon days under Sir Charles Groves. It played Europe’s first cycle of Mahler symphonies, with young Rattle in the audience.
At the age of 11, he was pleading with his father to take him on a school night to hear Groves conduct Messiaen’s vast Turangalila symphony: “I met Messaien and got the autograph. I still think it was one of the most thrilling moments of my life.”
Rattle enrolled at the Royal Academy of Music in 1971 and during his graduation three years later won the John Player International Conducting Competition.
Yet the intellectual Rattle remained restless and in 1980 he swerved into an academic year, reading English literature at St Anne’s, Oxford, explaining: “I’d never been to university and I wanted to.” He was happy to discover that he could be “just as moved by Andrew Marvell or Ulysses” as by music.
But then he took, in a way, his most significant if not biggest step: joining and then taking over the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, which he transformed into a top-flight ensemble and moved into Britain’s finest concert hall (even if all things are relative).
There, Rattle established the repertoire with which he would change life in Berlin: in addition to a Mahler cycle and the Austro-Germanic staples, there was Dvorak, Bartok, an overwhelming Glagolitic Mass by Janacek and, perhaps above all, Sibelius, whose symphonies he recorded in Birmingham to a level no one has since achieved. It was with Sibelius that Rattle stunned London last week.
So it was with a provincial English orchestra that Rattle showed how vision and inspiration can work in music, and that lured him to Berlin, and Berlin to him, in 2002. His debut with the orchestra had been a performance of Mahler’s devastating 6th Symphony in 1987.
At the heart of German music, however, Rattle’s innovations raised eyebrows among those who put an absolute premium on the core repertoire of Beethoven, Brahms and Wagner. Rattle’s retort has been straightforward: to play both the Germanic and other repertoires with insight, vigour and passion that amounts to genius. Wagner on period instruments, Rameau and French baroque, the Czech and Russian masters, Viennese modernists and contemporary premieres inspired by them – and of course “his” Sibelius. When he brought the Berliners to Liverpool in 2008, he played not what was expected of the Germans, but Turangalia, for old time’s sake.
In 2013, however, Rattle announced that he would not seek to remain in Germany beyond his current contract, which expires in 2018. “Will you still need me when I’m 64,” joked the Scouser, noting his age that year.
The man Rattle beat to the top job in Berlin was Daniel Barenboim, who remains across the Postdamerplatz as director of the Deutsche Oper. It is mind-boggling to imagine them in the same city, just as it will be when and if the LSO’s electrifying incumbent Valery Gergiev and the great Mariss Jansons share Munich, as is likely.
Barenboim has become almost as famous for his work bringing together Israeli and Palestinian musicians into the same orchestra, and Rattle has made his equally indelible mark on the notion of music as peace and liberation. He has been the leading exponent of, guest of, crusader for and unofficial patron of the miracle known in its native Venezuela as El Sistema, whereby young people from some of the poorest barrios are given instruments and redeem their lives by playing.
Their orchestras rank among the world’s finest and their first conductor, Gustavo Dudamel, is a global star. I remember interviewing former crack addicts and child prostitutes about their endeavours with Beethoven and Mahler, and an 11-year-old violinist in El Sistema’s youth orchestra telling me: “Oh, round here it’s more cool to be into Strauss than salsa.”
“El Sistema brings hope, through music, to hundreds of thousands of lives that would otherwise be lost to drugs and violence,” says Rattle, insisting that its founder, José Antonio Abreu, should be awarded the Nobel Peace prize for his work.
Rattle took El Sistema’s ideas back with him to Berlin, as well as the 18-year-old double bass player Edicson Ruiz, the Philharmonic’s youngest-ever recruit, who says: “When I was nine, I didn’t know I would get a meal at night or every day – but I did have a viola.”
Inspired by an entwinement of his outreach work in Birmingham and the model of Venezuela, Rattle launched the Berlin Philharmonic’s first education programme for youth on the city’s frayed edges, something the LSO had pioneered long ago and at which it excels. It should thrive all the more if Rattle arrives.
This passionate interest in music as redemptive life-enhancer rather than just “entertainment” is reflected in the private Rattle, the family man and music lover as well as maker. His romantic life has been a colourful one. He was married first to the American soprano Elaine Ross, with whom he had two sons (one of them, Sacha, is an acclaimed clarinettist), then came the screenwriter and political activist Candace Allen, before Rattle fell madly and mutually in love with Czech mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kozena, with whom he has two more sons, Jonas and Milos.
At home nowadays, he says: “The jazz records come out a lot. You find that with many musicians – we don’t listen to our own music for relaxation.” Rattle has called the Cuban jazz pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba “the most gifted pianist on the planet” and is a big fan of Sarah Vaughan.
He has installed a cinema-size screen in the house, on which his wife catches up with western films by Stanley Kubrick and Werner Herzog that never made it behind the iron curtain, and the maestro himself catches up with any episodes he may have missed while touring of the favourite family series: The Sopranos.
THE RATTLE FILE
Born Simon Denis Rattle, 19 January 1955 in Liverpool. His father was a commander in the Royal Navy. Studied at the Royal Academy of Music. He has been married three times and has five children.
Best of times He spent 1980-98 with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, where he made his reputation, and guided the orchestra to a newly built concert hall. Being appointed the principal conductor of Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, where he has enjoyed countless triumphs.
Worst of times Few professionally – he has had to withstand the occasional jibe from German music critics unhappy with his handling of the national repertoire, but these have been outweighed by praise.
He says “I have no satisfactory answer [to what a conductor does] because whatever you say, the opposite would also be true. It’s to do with controlling and not controlling, allowing and not allowing. It’s essentially to do with balance.”
They say “Simon Rattle does it [Turangalila] perfectly: he understands its primal rhythmic life force, and he and the wonderful Berliners make it a sheer riot of orchestral colour.”
Charles Hazlewood, conductor