Sir Simon Rattle and the BRSO – The story so far

Sir Simon Rattle and the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks in rehearsal at the Herkulessaal. © BR / Peter Meisel

Announced on Monday, and rumored for some months, Sir Simon Rattle has been appointed as the Chief Conductor of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus beginning with the 2023/2024 season.

The initial five-year contract was signed on 3 January 2021, ten-years-or-so after Rattle’s debut with the orchestra and chorus with Robert Schumann’s spellbinding oratorio Das Paradies und die Peri (1843) in the fall of 2010. Since his debut, Rattle has been a frequent visitor to Munich, conducting a fascinating variety of repertoire from Rameau to Ligeti, with two Wagner dramas in between.

Speculations about the future prospects of a partnership between one of the world’s leading orchestras and its adventurous new chief are understandably wide and plenty, some more firmly rooted in facts than others. 

While the roles of a Chefdirigent and a guest conductor are different in many ways, it may not be completely out of place to review the BRSO and Rattle teamwork so far, in order to set up some possible guidelines for the future.

As it is best to let the music-making speak for itself, this feature will focus on the audio recordings released on CD by BR Klassik and video streams currently available on the orchestra’s website, alongside occasional references to live concerts at the Herkulessaal over the past years.

Recordings have played an important role for the BRSO ever since its founding in 1949. Under the orchestra’s first two Chief Conductors, Eugen Jochum (from 1949 to 1960) and Rafael Kubelík (from 1961 to 1979), the BRSO recorded an extensive catalogue for Deutsche Grammophon. At the core of the orchestra’s DG discography were recordings of the Austro-German repertoire from the formidable takes on the Bruckner symphonies and masses with Jochum to the groundbreaking Mahler cycle with Kubelík.

In addition, performing and recording contemporary music has been a natural part of the orchestra’s activities all along, especially in the context of the Musica Viva series. Over seven decades, the BRSO has premiered a myriad of intriguing new works by composers from Orff to Birtwistle.

During Mariss Jansons’s tenure (from 2003 to 2019), the BRSO centered its recording activities under its house label, BR Klassik, from the fall of 2009 onwards. With Jansons, the orchestra recorded a compelling variety of repertoire, from Haydn to contemporary, including a lauded Beethoven cycle on audio and video.

Jansons conducted the BRSO for the last time at Carnegie Hall on 8 November 2019. His passing four weeks after the final concert on 30 November ended a long and mutually cherished chapter in the orchestra’s history. 

Now, a year-or-so later, a new era is dawning. The BRSO press announcement quoted Rattle saying that he looks forwards to leading the orchestra and choir for many years to come. 

“Building on wonderful moments of music-making together over the last ten years, we will explore a wide range of wonderful music together and craft programs across many genres – both for our live-audiences and for viewers and listeners of the BR’s media channels. Our ambitions include the development of the orchestra’s creativity with period performance practice, as well as building closer connections with the Musica Viva series in the city.”  

In his statement Rattle endorsed the orchestra’s atmosphere of flexible, refined and loving music making, cherished and cultivated by his predecessors. 

”When I look forward to collaborating with this great orchestra and their astonishing chorus, I would therefore like to pay tribute to all the extraordinary musicians who came before and who created such artistic warmth and ‘Menschlichkeit’. The people change, but the ethos remains.”

Sir Simon Rattle signing his contract with the Bavarian Radio intendant Ulrich Wilhelm in Berlin on 3 January 2021. © BR

So far, the joint music making of Rattle and the BRSO has been preserved on three BR Klassik albums, featuring substantial forays into the Austro-German repertoire. Their recording career was inaugurated in grand manner in the fall of 2015, with the release of Richard Wagner’s Das Rheingold (1851-54). 

Recorded in conjunction with concert performances at the Herkulessaal on 24 and 25 April 2015, Rattle’s Munich Rheingold was a precursor to his complete Der Ring des Nibelungen (1848-1874) at the Vienna State Opera in May and June of that year.

On 8 and 10 February 2019, Rattle led the BRSO in two performances of Die Walküre (1854-56). As with Das Rheingold, a complete audio recording was made in the course of the rehearsals and concert performances, subsequently released on CD in April 2020. 

Having thus ventured halfway through the Ring, the BRSO and Rattle are obviously assumed to complete their Ring cycle in a not-too-distant future, although no official announcement has been made, until now. 

According to the BRSO website, the plan now is for Rattle’s concert performance of the entire Ring to reach its conclusion with Siegfried (1856-71) and Götterdämmerung (1869-74) in the new Munich Konzerthaus. The new hall, with its projected 1800-seat main auditorium, is to be located at the Munich East Train Station in the center of the city. 

Earlier this week, The New York Times quoted the BRSO manager Nikolaus Pont saying that the construction of the new hall is expected to begin in 2022 and will likely last three or four years. Thus, it will take some time for Rattle and the orchestra to finish their Ring, but based on the first two album releases, it will one to look forward to with excitement and joy.

Performing and recording Wagner dramas in concert settings have their roots in BRSO’s famous Tristan und Isolde (1857-59) project with Leonard Bernstein in 1981. Time will tell if the Rattle-led Ring will acquire similar classic status among critics and record collectors.

Among their many virtues, perhaps the most notable aspect of the BRSO and Rattle performances of Das Rheingold and Die Walküre is their intimate, almost chamber music appeal, facilitated by the wonderful acoustic ambience of the Herkulessaal.

Under Rattle’s reflective direction, Wagner’s intricate orchestral fabric is awaken into sonic reality with remarkable attention to nuanced detail by the astounding BRSO players. On both occasions, the orchestra is a trustworthy parter to the cast, providing the top-class Wagner singers, such as Michael Volle, Tomas Konieczny, Janina Baechle, Stuart Skelton, Eva Maria Westbroek, Iréne Theorin et al., a perfect framework to convey the vocal drama. 

Be it those sudden changes of ambience and texture or the extended build-ups of musical arch, Rattle and the BRSO tell the story of the Ring in the most captivating manner, resulting in enthrallingly vivid accounts of Wagner’s astounding scores. 

Sir Simon Rattle, the BRSO and the cast of Die Walküre onstage at the Herkulessaal in February 2019. © BR / Peter Meisel

Over the past years, Rattle’s commitment to performing operatic scores in concert has become ever more prominent, as demonstrated by the recent recordings of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande (1893-1902), Berlioz’s La damnation de Faust (1845-46) and Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen (1921-23) with the London Symphony Orchestra, to point out just a couple of examples. Thus, it is probably safe to assume that opera will play an important role throughout his time with the BRSO as well, extending beyond the projected Ring.  

In addition to the two Wagner dramas, at the BRSO and Rattle discography also includes a luminous performance of Gustav Mahler’s symphony-but-name Das Lied von der Erde (1908-09), with Skelton and Magdalena Kožená as soloists.

Coupled with Schumann Rhenish Symphony (1850) in the original Herkulessaal performances on 25 and 26 January 2018, Mahler’s song-symphony was a tremendously moving affair to hear there in the hall. The recording reflects the captivating ambience of the live performance remarkably well, yielding to one of the most absorbing takes on the score in recent memory.

In the manner of the Wagner performances, Rattle and the BRSO conceive Mahler’s orchestral score as large-scale chamber music, with extraordinary attention to musical dialogue, clad in the full spectrum of symphonic colour. 

The scope and scale of instrumental expression is ever well-measured to the narrative in each of the six movements, ranging from those defiant tutti bursts in the opening Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde to the reflective, extended resignation of Der Abschied, not forgetting the sublime melancholy and witty playfulness of the four inner movements.

The thirty-minute last movement is a case in point in symphonic narrative. With Rattle on the podium, the BRSO musicians appear once again as wonderful story-tellers, providing an invigorated context for Kožená’s compelling performance of the solo part.

As one of our finest and mot experienced Mahlerians, Rattle is an ideal conductor to carry the BRSO’s extraordinary Mahler tradition ever further, adding yet another layer to the orchestra’s admirable insight into these core works of the symphonic repertoire.

While the CD recordings with Rattle and the BRSO have focused on the large-scale works of the Austro-German repertoire, the concert streams available on the orchestra’s website at the moment may give us further clues on the programming of the Rattle era.

In this respect, the video stream from the concerts at the Philharmonie am Gasteig on 19 and 20 July 2020 provides some interesting insight on the French repertoire championed by Rattle throughout his career. Apart from notable performances of the Berlioz oeuvre, especially during the Sir Colin Davis era (from 1983 to 1992), French music is perhaps not overtly associated with the BRSO repertoire. 

Hearing the orchestra give kaleidoscopic performances of Maurice Ravel’s pristine ballet score Ma mère l’Oye and Paul Dukas’s rousing Fanfare pour précéder La Péri (1912) with Rattle, one’s imagination is invigorated by the prospects of hearing further French repertoire from Munich in the coming years. 

In similar vein, the video-on-demand of the orchestra’s first Covid-era performance from the Munich Funkhaus, reviewed in full here, provides the listener with tantalizing glimpses of Mozart and Vaughan Williams, ever so splendidly performed under Rattle. 

Unfortunately, none of the Rattle recordings available either on disc or on demand so far include contributions from the superlative Bavarian Radio Chorus. 

Sir Simon Rattle in reheasal with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus at the Herkulessaal. © BR / Peter Meisel

On 27 May 2016, I was ever-so-lucky to attend what has probably been the most wondrous Rattle performance in Munich so far; a tremendous outing of Joseph Haydn’s final masterpiece, the oratorio Die Jahreszeiten (1799-1801), featuring outstanding contributions from the soloists Marlis Petersen, Andrew Staples and Florian Boesch, the BRSO and the Bavarian Radio Chorus.  

One of those evenings where everything just clicks, the concert was nothing short of revelation. I remember sitting next to an elderly lady, a BRSO subscriber for decades, who, like myself, was completely spellbound by the performance. While some glimpses of this unforgettable production can be heard on the short interview video by the Bayerischer Rundfunk, having the full performance on disc would be a dream come true. 

The next chapter in the saga of the BRSO and its Chief Conductor Designate is to be unfolded in March, as Rattle returns to the podium of his future collaborative team to conduct the world premiere of Ondřej Adámek’s new song cycle Where are you? (2020), alongside Georg Friedrich Haas’s dark-hued masterpiece in vain (2000) as well as the music of Purcell, Haydn, Brahms, Stravinsky and Messiaen 

These forthcoming concerts might be conceived as a mini-portrait of Rattle the conductor, providing a fascinating selection of his delightfully varied repertoire, form baroque to contemporary. Interesting times ahead for Munich.  

© Jari Kallio

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