So often missed in his absence, the ever-probing, ceaselessly charismatic conductor Sir Simon Rattle is about to be as ubiquitous as he has ever been around these parts.
He has Philadelphia Orchestra concerts (Oct. 6 and 10), Tristan und Isolde at the Metropolitan Opera (Sept. 26 through Oct. 13), and a multiconcert residency at Carnegie Hall that includes the Berlin Philharmonic. Collectively, these activities will look back at his 16-year tenure (ending in 2018) with the Berliners and peer forward to who he will be without his reputedly argumentative relationship with the world's most prestigious orchestra.
Though a beloved visitor to the Philadelphia Orchestra (which has also courted him as music director since the late 1990s), Rattle was welcomed back to his native England by a London Symphony Orchestra appointment that will no doubt allow him to pursue the kind of special projects he loves. It's true that Rattle successfully pulled the Berlin Philharmonic into the 21st century with an ambitious new approach to the recording market, an ongoing video presence with Digital Concert Hall subscriptions, plus less-visible educational outreach endeavors. Still, the ghost of Herbert von Karajan - the legendary conductor (1908-89) who forged the orchestra's unique sonority and international reputation over 35 years - refused to go away.
If ever Rattle was in a position to put his stamp on the Beethoven symphonies, it was with the new set issued this year after concert performances in New York, Paris, and Vienna. With a selling price hovering around $90 on the Berliner Philharmoniker label, the package defies digital sound-file trends, issued in a hardcover box with video and Blu-ray options.
In other words, it's an event.
And musically? Less so.
His 2002 Beethoven recordings with the Vienna Philharmonic felt like a semi-successful attempt to translate historically informed performance movement to one of the world's most tradition-bound orchestras. But if Rattle tried that with the Berliners, it didn't stick. The recordings show an orchestra functioning on all cylinders, but it's business as usual, Berlin Philharmonic style. And how could it be any other way?
During one of the Berlin orchestra's appearances this summer at the BBC Proms, the announcer at Royal Albert Hall casually observed that Rattle & Co. were about to play the Brahms Symphony No. 2, reading off of parts that date to the Wilhelm Furtwängler era, which ended in 1954, with an accumulation of written performance directions from the many conductors who have come since. Institutional history, in this case, isn't some amorphous idea. It's right there on the page.
In the new Beethoven set, that tradition may be downright oppressive, with Rattle's individuality apparent only in the cracks found in this shield of tradition. Here and there in the Symphony No. 9, you hear a strongly characterized phrase. Parts of the Symphony No. 5 come alive. But the Symphony No. 6 sounds like autopilot compared to his vibrant Philadelphia Orchestra reading in seasons past. Only in Beethoven's Symphony No. 2, the least-played of the bunch, do you feel like it's a Simon Rattle performance.
So here's the theory (and, like most theories on art, it doesn't entirely hold up): Pieces on which Furtwängler and Karajan put their strongest stamp are the ones that most limit the individuality of whomever is now conducting the Berlin Philharmonic. The orchestra was slow to latch on to Mahler; Karajan's failing eyesight was partly to blame. The symphonies he never got to - the Seventh and the 10th, for example - most readily reveal Rattle's voice as a conductor.
It's interesting, too, that Rattle is saving the Mahler Sixth - a classic in Karajan's discography - for the Philadelphia Orchestra in the Oct. 6 concert at the Kimmel Center and an Oct. 10 date at New York's Carnegie Hall. Though Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande and Wagner's Tristan und Isolde were Karajan specialties, these large-scale operas were infrequent Berlin Philharmonic visitors. And, again, this is where Rattle seems to be all he can be.
The difference between conductor and orchestra may be fundamental. Rattle is constantly interested not just in what a piece of music is, but what else it can be. One obvious instance was presenting Bach's St. Matthew Passion as staged, go-for-broke theater directed by Peter Sellars. The Berlin identity is about making definitive musical statements, laying down the law, so to speak. Nothing is definitive with Rattle.
Compare the Tristan performances (Karajan's 1972 studio recording on EMI and Rattle's live 2016 performance on YouTube). Karajan's was about creating perfect unity of expression, of consolidating musical and dramatic elements to achieve the ultimate coherence amid Wagner's hour-plus spans of music. At every turn in the four-hour opera, you hear how each musical development grows out of the last and relates to whatever happened five, 10, 30 minutes previously.
Rattle wants to see how far that unity can be stretched while exploring the specific personality and maximum meaning of the piece's individual events. Simplistically, it's homogeneous vs. heterogeneous. Karajan's trademark exterior suaveness is channeled by Rattle into sonorities of magnitude that have a chiseled-in-granite quality full of musical, philosophical, and metaphysical implications. It's not comfortable listening. Dissonances get under your skin. When Tristan and Isolde are reunited in Act III, Rattle ignites the orchestra in ways that suggest their world is ending, or beginning, or both.
The two approaches speak to different eras. In the post-World War II rise of mass communication, Karajan & Co. (who happened to be headquartered quite near the Berlin Wall) were understandably eager to get the great masterpieces out into the world in a way that most beautifully showed what they are.
Now, technology has removed borders of all sorts, with masterpieces available on Spotify and existing in invisible sound files. Rattle offers insurance against overexposure and casual listening with performances that say, "I'll never know these works completely and neither will you." Classical music may seem like a static presence but is anything but. Beethoven and Brahms are changing subtly but constantly in the context of society.
In that light, nobody can objectively say the great conductors of one generation are better than those of another. But if you're willing to embrace our own time in all its glory and horror, Rattle - not Karajan - does so, at least when his musicians let him.