The definition of classic

Conductor Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic strike the perfect notes, no matter the musical style.

Published May 7, 2006

These are heady days for the Berlin Philharmonic.

Not only is the orchestra widely regarded as the best in the world, but conductor Sir Simon Rattle, the ensemble's leader since 2002, brings more to the table than engaging charisma and solid musical vision. He also brings an important and lucrative recording contract.

The results of Rattle's 25-year relationship with classical music giant EMI are dizzying. Among their output are a number of excellent recordings with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, an English group Rattle created nearly from scratch and then made world famous. Rattle is fast approaching his 100th compact disc release with the label.

As conductor of the Berlin group, Rattle has turned out a spate of recordings that is unmatched in recent times. His latest discs include works by Richard Strauss, Schubert, Dvorak and Debussy, and, true to all expectations, they are uniformly excellent.

The scope of Rattle's artistry is best illustrated by the Strauss disc, which features Ein Heldenleben and Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. The former is an oft-performed warhorse, ostensibly an autobiographical portrait of the composer himself. (Strauss is reported to have said, "I do not see why I should not compose a work about myself. I find myself quite as interesting as Napoleon or Alexander.")

A narrative in six parts, Ein Heldenleben requires controlled power and skilled pacing that Rattle executes formidably. My favorite section is "The Hero's Battlefield," the violent collision of our hero with his unenlightened music critics. In Rattle's hands it is a tour de force of turn-of-the-century modernism that takes Strauss' passionate strains to the very edge of permissibility, but never leads them off the cliff.

Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme is an affable, neoclassical jaunt brimming with beautifully played solos. Based on Moliere's play and written for only 37 musicians, this work is chamber-like in its textures. Here Rattle never imposes himself upon the music, as is evident in the wonderful "Entrance of Cleonte," composed after the manner of the great French Baroque composer Lully. The conductor lets the musicians do the work, and they are remarkable throughout.

Rattle's two-disc set of four Dvorak tone poems will be sought not just because the performances are terrific, but because the compositions themselves are practically unknown. The Golden Spinning Wheel has some renown, but few have heard the Wood Dove, the Noonday Witch and the Water Goblin.

In these beautiful compositions, all written in 1896, Rattle takes leave of Dvorak the symphonist and all the formality that term implies. He instead highlights the composer's profound gift for melody. Freed from the developmental requirements of symphonic forms, Dvorak is also able to show off his considerable skill in orchestration. Rattle, with a careful ear for balance, introduces Dvorak's unexpectedly colorful and vibrant compositional palette.

One doesn't always expect a German orchestra to offer French fare so well, but Rattle captures Debussy's La Mer and Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun splendidly. The Philharmonic is fully in its element in this evanescent reading of the Prelude, but I am particularly fond of Rattle's La Mer, where so many feelings and emotions associated with the sea are conveyed in shimmering glory.

Contrast all the foregoing with the restraint of Rattle's version of Schubert's Ninth Symphony, "The Great." Recorded live in 2005, it retains a great deal of its spontaneity, aided by excellent engineering that heightens the lush, lustrous sound. In the first movement Rattle keeps a lively pace, and the second is most laudable for the incredible precision of Schubert's dotted-note figures. Although clearly comfortable in a wide range of styles, one senses that Rattle's Berlin Philharmonic is most at home with the early Romantics. This version of Schubert is unparalleled.

Rattle himself is something of a throwback. He recalls the days when conductors spent the bulk of their time in a single locale, and they were able to teach and drill their forces to perfection. He mentions Stokowski or Toscanini or Reiner, fiery visionaries whose musical perspectives were unquestioned. After a scant three years at the helm, the Berlin Philharmonic trusts Rattle and responds to his every dictum.

In these four recordings, Rattle and the Philharmonic explore a huge range of artistic styles and ideals. And at this moment in the history of classical music, there are no better musicians to interpret them than these. GRADE FOR ALL: A


Richard Strauss: Ein Heldenleben, Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme; Berlin Philharmonic/Simon Rattle, conductor (EMI Classics 09463393927)

Schubert: Symphony No. 9, "The Great"; Berlin Philharmonic/Simon Rattle, conductor (EMI Classics 094633938229)

Debussy:La Mer, Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, others; Berlin Philharmonic/Simon Rattle, conductor (EMI Classics 724355804525)

Dvorak: Tone Poems; Berlin Philharmonic/Simon Rattle, conductor (EMI Classics 724355801920)