Newspaper article International New York Times

A Homecoming for Simon Rattle ; A Series of Concerts Raises Question of What Comes Next for Conductor

Newspaper article International New York Times

A Homecoming for Simon Rattle ; A Series of Concerts Raises Question of What Comes Next for Conductor

Article excerpt

The orchestra's residency last week again raised a question of whether London could be Mr. Rattle's next stop.

Whenever the conductor Simon Rattle takes his Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra to London, there's a sense of reckoning: about the boy who went away, made good and is now bringing home the proof. For British audiences, the very idea that a conductor from England -- what Germans used to call "the land without music" -- is in charge of Germany's flagship orchestra is a continuing source of national delight. British music lovers are always curious to know how the relationship has worked out.

Last week's London residency, in which Mr. Rattle and the Philharmonic gave concerts from Tuesday to Sunday at the Southbank Center and the Barbican, drew even more news media attention than usual, for two reasons. One is that Mr. Rattle's engagement with Berlin is drawing to a close -- he leaves in 2018, at the end of 16 years in the job -- and it raises the question, what comes next? A possible answer is that he takes over the London Symphony. After prolonged periods of will-he-won't-he flirting with that orchestra, there was the prospect of an announcement last weekend, but nothing was said. (Recent word that Alan Gilbert will leave the New York Philharmonic in 2017 has raised similar speculation.)

Another reason for the extra interest is that Mr. Rattle has just turned 60, and it was presumably no accident that the music chosen for this residency looked back on some of the preoccupations of his working life. Saturday's Southbank concert opened with a contemporary classic by Helmut Lachenmann -- "Tableau for Orchestra" -- that signaled Mr. Rattle's relationship with modern Germany and his efforts to open the Berlin repertoire to composers finding new possibilities in the old traditions of Austro-German orchestral writing. Otherwise, the focus was on Mahler (two performances of the Second Symphony) and Sibelius (a cycle of all seven symphonies): special interests that predate his elevation to Berlin and were conspicuous highlights of the 18 years (1980-98) spent with his previous orchestra, the City of Birmingham Symphony.

While in Birmingham, Mr. Rattle made outstanding discs of Mahler's Second Symphony and the complete Sibelius for EMI. Some would argue that for all the disparity in status between the two orchestras, it was in Birmingham, rather than Berlin, that the Rattle magic has worked best.

That notion was supported by what was heard last week in London. The most striking quality of the Sibelius cycle that ran at the Barbican was the sheer grandeur of the Berlin Philharmonic sound, which seemed to burst out of the boxed-in confines of the hall (acoustically, the Barbican is far from perfect) with assertive confidence and rich, red-blooded warmth. No British orchestra, however good, has anything to match that sound. …

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