The Simon Rattle brand has become so identified with Berlin that it came as a surprise to find him billed as conductor of the Berliners’ arch-rival, the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, for his latest visit home. But Rattle’s association with Vienna goes back long before he took his job in Berlin, and of his predecessors there, only Claudio Abbado severed links with the Vienna Philharmonic after moving to Berlin.
A Rattle concert with the Viennese is a different experience. There is no symbiosis between conductor and musicians of the type he has developed with the Berlin Philharmonic, no sense of a musical journey undertaken on equal terms and determined by a joint vision. Rattle has always been one of the most forward-looking conductors, whereas the Vienna Philharmonic represents the coagulation of tradition.
For this reunion of opposites they joined in a dance of dissembling, each side making superficial compromises in order to maintain a show of harmony. In Brahms’s Third Symphony, which opened the concert, Rattle loved the music to pieces, stringing it out longingly in homage to the Vienna Philharmonic’s fuddy-duddy sound – Brahms as a bowl of pasta, unlike the juicy steak of his Berlin Brahms. There was ample opportunity to admire the players’ individual merits in the Poco allegretto, but the closing bars of the finale dissolved shapelessly.
Schumann’s Third Symphony, by contrast, was “game to Rattle”: he set off at such a lick that he almost left orchestra and music behind. That, and his decision to play all five movements continuously, denied the music the monumental architecture that an older generation gave it, but at least the musicians looked interested. Even if they didn’t seem to feel the music from within, there was no sign of the auto-pilot they usually offer on tour. Leonard Bernstein is the only conductor in my experience who has made them truly loosen up.
The one work that found conductor and players sparking creatively was Webern’s Six Pieces for Orchestra Op. 6 – Rattle divining its Mahlerian angst, the Philharmonic casting a rainbow of timbres on its terse frame that was quasi-impressionist in effect.