The closer Simon Rattle comes to the end of his Berlin Philharmonic tenure, the more he seems not to be simply leaving. He's being liberated.
Whether his 2018 departure translates into more time spent with the Philadelphia Orchestra (his one regular U.S. guest engagement over the years), Rattle stands to give more personal and less mediated performances in the receptive musical terrain of the London Symphony Orchestra than has been heard so often over his 14 years in Berlin.
Rattle has long said the Berlin Philharmonic was a pretty argumentative bunch. And what he concedes to publicly could be a fraction of what really goes on. One of the orchestra's longtime staff members told me it's a mystery why Rattle didn't decamp to Philadelphia, where the love is close to unconditional.
I'm not saying Rattle's Berlin period hasn't been successful. With a great conductor and great orchestra, wonderful things will happen, most recently his superintense Pelleas et Melisande in December. But wonderment has been fitful. Increasingly, the union has looked like one of those semifunctional marriages where the two parties stay together for the sake of the kids. Literally: One of Rattle's hallmarks has been outreach to the young.
The tale is told by two current recordings. One looks backward to his Berlin tenure with the seven Sibelius symphonies, recently released with posh packaging on the Berlin Philharmonic's own label. And the London Symphony Orchestra, which Rattle officially takes over in 2017, has issued a new live recording of him conducting a piece he has championed over the years: Schumann's oratorio Das Paradies und die Peri, with a blue-chip cast including Sally Matthews, Kate Royal, and Florian Boesch.
Maybe now some semblance of an artistic profile of Rattle in his 60s will emerge, as opposed to his recent Beethoven cycle at Carnegie Hall, where four of the nine symphonies I heard with the Berlin Philharmonic filtered his sensibility through the group's metallic sonority, even when performances were at their most spirited.
That's not how it began: History seemed to be in the making with their chiseled-in-granite Mahler Symphony No. 10. Schoenberg's Gurrelieder was majestic in Rattle's Philadelphia Orchestra performances, but in Berlin, the lavish orchestration had an intimate chamber-music quality. How is that even possible? Well, they did it.
And then? Rattle was as insightful as ever when he conducted Beethoven's Fidelio at Paris' Chatelet Theatre with the period-instrument Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in 2002. But in his 2003 EMI recording of the opera, the Berliners' sonority sounds clumsy and even dated. Can Rattle have wanted this? Subsequently, some of his biggest Berlin successes have had the orchestra playing a secondary role, such as Bach's St. Matthew Passion.
That distinctive depth of sound that is the orchestra's most obvious asset became an intermittent artistic barrier. The Italianate warmth of Claudio Abbado, Rattle's predecessor, felt more gold-plated than chrome. Before him, Herbert von Karajan created something more textured, at least in his Sibelius recordings, that took you well beyond the music's surfaces. But that was far enough in the past that Rattle probably started his Sibelius cycle with a fairly clean slate, especially as Sibelius is still a bit foreign to Germanic orchestras. Shaking the Berlin Philharmonic out of its default personality can't be a bad thing.
And that happens in Sibelius' spare, severe, inward-looking Symphony No. 4, said to depict a time of famine when Finnish peasants were reduced to eating the bark off trees. Rattle unflinchingly shines a light into the piece's darkest depths, showing how he and his orchestra can forge paths unique to them.
Rattle has long tended to magnify everything he conducts - notice the masterfully sustained buildup to the final movement of Schumann's Symphony No. 4 in his Berlin recording - and in this Sibelius 4th, the entire symphony is like that.
The Symphonies Nos. 6 and 7 are played as a continuous narrative, Rattle's habit in recent years. The 6th is full of tender moments, while the highly concentrated 7th, with its stunning final-moment harmonic resolution, can be hard to track. Together, one makes you appreciate the other.
The patriotic Symphony No. 2 works well with the orchestra's sound, but the pastoral Symphony No. 5 is so aggressive that the first movement's depiction of birds rising into the sky feels like a hurricane. Rattle finds nice details in the modest Symphony No. 3 and wisely doesn't oversell it. But the Symphony No. 1, a favorite of mine, becomes impersonal and loses the sense of the composer finding his voice.
So, is everything back to where it should be in Rattle's new London Symphony Orchestra recording of Schumann's Das Paradies und die Peri? I wouldn't go that far. Schumann is writ large - Berlin style - as though to apologize for the fragility of the piece's mythology, about an imaginary being seeking admission into heaven. With operatic fervor, Rattle seems to be shouting the music's importance, in contrast to such conductors as Philippe Herreweghe, who invites you into this delicate world and lets you discover it for yourself.
Has Rattle become a compulsive gargantuanist? Luckily, no. The Schumann recording is thoughtfully conceived and is consistent unto itself. For those who like this sort of approach, it may even be a landmark. And his Pelleas et Melisande showed him seizing upon Debussy's most interior dramaturgic techniques with rare comprehension in a shadowy world full of invisible forces that rule people's lives. With a staging by Peter Sellars (which I didn't see in the sound-only webcast), Pelleas is probably destined for a DVD release; the fine cast is headed by his wife, Magdalena Kozena, and Christian Gerhaher.
This may be the flourish that leaves Rattle's Berlin tenure with a sense of what worked rather than what did not, and gives a true image of who he will be in the coming decade.