Simon Rattle grits his teeth and flares his nostrils. He raises his silver eyebrows, opens his mouth in vowel shapes, closes his eyes again in an ecstatic expression, bounces his baton off the air. These are his ways of expressing how the music makes him feel. They are also the tics that bother some of the musicians of the Berlin Philharmonic. Part of the orchestra finds him tense, nervous, controlling. They want their space to play. At the end of Rattle’s 16-year tenure as music director of the orchestra, their relationship is not unlike a couple that’s been married for too long. A former member of the Karajan Academy told VAN, “There are some members who take off as many weeks as they can” for Rattle’s concerts.

“The orchestra doesn’t look at him anymore,” one string player familiar with the situation in the orchestra said. This loss of “magnetism” isn’t unique to Rattle. At the end of the Karajan era, his arrogance and hunger for power had completely alienated the orchestra; and when Claudio Abbado retired, he had already become a target for the musicians’ jokes. A popular impression involved his wavering voice in rehearsing, calling out to groups of instruments: “horns!” or “flutes!” he’d say, and no one knew exactly what the horns or flutes should do. Tension at the end of the relationship is more the rule than the exception. Maybe it would be healthier for all involved if music directorships lasted closer to five years, or if the orchestra could play a year or two without a music director.

Photo: Jeffrey Arlo Brown

The Berlin Philharmonic makes things unusually difficult for its conductors. Its famous solo players, like Emmanuel Pahud, Albrecht Mayer, Andreas Ottensamer, and others, are used to interpreting music in their own way, and are opinionated and willful. (Many of them conduct on the side as well.) It takes talent—some might say arrogance—to manage an orchestra that sees itself like Real Madrid’s Galácticos, each player of whom would be the captain of any other team. The orchestra expects a conductor to impress them. “After half the rehearsal, the orchestra makes up its mind: let’s just do it ourselves,” a wind player who substitutes with the Philharmonic said. That’s when the autopilot switches on. In 2013, it took the group less than an hour to dismiss Jaap van Zweden, the music director designate at the New York Philharmonic, who was substituting for Mariss Jansons. He hasn’t been invited back. This is an attitude stemming from the Berlin Philharmonic’s long, legendary tradition—the orchestra of Furtwängler and Karajan—and, maybe, a need to reassure themselves that they still really are the best. Meanwhile, other crack ensembles around the world chip away at that status.

When Rattle was voted music director of the Berlin Philharmonic, in 1999, the result was approximately 60 to 40 percent in his favor. Soon after, rumors began leaking to the press that the musicians were unhappy. Rattle felt humiliated and told the orchestra that such discussions don’t belong in public, and requested a vote of no confidence before renewing his contract with the ensemble, in 2009. Again, approximately 60 percent of the musicians voted for him to stay. The episode showed that the musicians were willing to put pressure on him from outside, and that the divisions in the orchestra hadn’t been smoothed over. “It was a pretty ugly story,” said a musician who played in Philharmonic at the time.

Photo: Jeffrey Arlo Brown

With all this in mind, Rattle can come as across too mild-mannered, even “pleasant,” in rehearsal. During rehearsals for Georg Friedrich Haas’s “dark dreams” in 2014, the strings goofed off with their glissandi and didn’t immediately stop playing when Rattle cut them off, more like a student ensemble than the world’s most prestigious orchestra. Rattle is “the nicest and most diplomatic guy on the planet,” the former member of the Karajan Academy said. “But particularly with this orchestra, if the conductor isn’t demanding something bigger than themselves, it’s a free-for-all.”

When Rattle and the orchestra aren’t getting along, it makes its way on stage. While the debate about Rattle’s approach to the so-called German sound has been exaggerated, there’s no denying that in certain repertoire, like Bruckner and Debussy, the orchestra lacks lushness; pizzicati fall flat, and complex textures fail to draw you in. The sound of the orchestra under Rattle can be hard and angular. “There’s always been a fraction that was in favor of a warmer approach to the sound,” the substitute musician said. “He always has a knife.” The former Karajan Academy member recently saw the Berlin Philharmonic play Bruckner’s Symphony No. 9 on tour. The performance lacked both the warm of the old style and the freshness of the best of Rattle. “It was a fuck fest,” he said. “The orchestra played like hell, but loud and wild, without shape and depth, as if there was no conductor at all.”

In April of 2009, the Berlin Philharmonic was rehearsing Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 in Salzburg. In the third movement, the Scherzo, a famous horn trio arches up and down an Eb major chord. Radek Baborák, then the principal horn of the orchestra, wanted to play in passage in a hunting style. Rattle had a different musical idea, which Baborák felt wasn’t explained clearly. The two men argued back and forth, until Rattle finally said, “Radek, just do it, because I am the boss.”

Baborák joined the Berlin Philharmonic in 2003. He was never a Rattle enthusiast. But starting with their open disagreement about Beethoven’s horn trio, their relationship became particularly tense. Musical discussions “escalated in a few different rehearsals,” Baborák said. While he was still under contract at the Philharmonic, Baborák made comments to a Czech journalist mildly criticizing Rattle, and in response, he received a letter of censure from the artistic director and the board. “They were upset [that] I didn’t support the orchestra,” he said. For him, this was in direct contradiction to the Berlin Philharmonic’s understanding of itself as an “orchestra republic” with a democratic culture. “I’m from a different planet,” Baborák said. “I was too naive.”

Photo: Jeffrey Arlo Brown

Baborák believes that several planned concerts with the Philharmonic as a concerto soloist were canceled due to his open defiance of Rattle. (Another orchestra member who remembers the events denies this.) Either way, Baborák made up his mind that he was ready to move on. He resigned from the orchestra in 2010 to pursue a career as a soloist, chamber musician and conductor. But he was philosophical and good-humored about his time with the Berlin Philharmonic. He spoke to VAN by phone from Japan, where he was conducting, and he seemed happy to be independent and responsible for his own musical decisions. “I’m not a follower,” he said.

For Guy Braunstein, the first concertmaster of the Berlin Philharmonic from 2000 to 2013, the tension with Rattle was what made his time in the orchestra so rewarding. He remembers living in Paris in the summer of 1999, going to the post office to send off some job applications, and seeing the newspaper headlines that Rattle was succeeding Abbado at the orchestra. “My first reaction was: strange,” he said. But he applied to the job anyway and was accepted. It took only 15 minutes, playing Messiaen’s “Eclairs sur l’au-delà” under Rattle, for him to realize that the British conductor was the right choice for the orchestra. Rather than trying to overhaul the Berlin Philharmonic’s sound, Rattle “cherry-picked what he liked and added things we didn’t possess,” Braunstein said. Rattle dived enthusiastically into Haas’s microtonal world and found a new, clean sound for the classical repertoire. Studying pieces like Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 in C Major “The Great” was “like going back to school,” Braunstein said. “We worked like maniacs.”

For Braunstein, Rattle’s rehearsal technique was just right. He didn’t “compromise on his artistry in order to be polite.” In fact, Braunstein admired Rattle for his strong will. Like Baborák, Braunstein “clashed” with the conductor, but unlike the Czech hornist, he enjoyed the back-and-forth and felt that it made the orchestra stronger. “There were times that I wanted to kill him,” Braunstein said. “And I’m sure he still wants to kill me. And that’s the fun of it.” He continued, “with some down parts, there were quite a lot of times where he took us—me at least—to heaven. And that’s not a contradiction.”

Photo: Jeffrey Arlo Brown

That the Berlin Philharmonic is what Braunstein called a “collection of very strong personalities” is both its biggest strength and biggest weakness. The struggle can be both invigorating and, eventually, exhausting. Perhaps that’s why the orchestra’s tolerance for public debate is far lower than its democratic rhetoric would suggest. While reporting this story, VAN reached out to a current active member of the Berlin Philharmonic for comment. The musician forwarded our email to the orchestra’s press representative, who chided us for contacting musicians directly. When we asked if we could speak with a current member of the orchestra about Rattle on the record, the entire ensemble apparently declined. “The orchestra’s unanimous opinion is that the interview with Baborák should stand for itself,” the press representative wrote in an email.

So far, Rattle has only given one exit interview, to 128, the official Berlin Philharmonic magazine. “This orchestra doesn’t make life easy for itself,” he said. “But when you’ve reached your goal, and the blisters are healed, then you know that it was worth it.” He added, “You probably need to be 90 to conduct this orchestra correctly.” In any case, as one orchestra member wrote VAN in an email, “The relationship ends this season, so there’s nothing more to talk about.” Rattle will focus his musical energies on the London Symphony Orchestra, and Kirill Petrenko, the music director designate starting in 2019, will lead the Berlin Philharmonic in music by Strauss and Beethoven in their season opener this August. Meanwhile, Herbert-von-Karajan-Straße, right outside the Philharmonie, is under construction. It’s being torn up and rebuilt from scratch. ¶

Subscribers keep VAN running!

VAN is proud to be an independent classical music magazine, and we’re able to do so in part thanks to our subscribers. For less than $0.11 a day, you can join our community of supporters, access over 500 articles in our archives, and get new ones delivered straight to your inbox each week.

(PS: Not ready to commit to a full year? You can test-drive VAN for a month for the price of a coffee.)

… has been an editor at VAN since 2015. He’s the author of The Life and Music of Gérard Grisey: Delirium and Form (Boydell & Brewer), and his journalism has appeared in The Baffler, the New York...

... earned degrees in development studies, Asian studies, and cultural anthropology from universities in Berlin, Seoul, Edinburgh, and London. He is a founder of VAN, where he serves as publisher and editor-in-chief.