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Simon Rattle is the second child of highly musical parents: his father was a practising, but not professional, musician; his mother ran a music shop that sold gramophone records; and his elder sister became a music librarian and soon introduced him to music scores, which he read ‘…as other children read comics’. Although at first Rattle was interested predominantly in playing percussion instruments, his ambition to conduct was triggered by hearing, when aged eleven, a performance of Mahler’s Symphony No 2 under George Hurst. The effect of this encounter was profound: to quote Rattle himself, ‘That was it, that was a totally transfiguring experience. It was the road to Damascus, and it knocked me for six…I think in serious terms that is where the seed was sown.’ Already organising and conducting amateur performances on Merseyside, he was accepted by the Royal Academy of Music in 1971.

In his penultimate year at the Academy, 1974, Rattle won the John Player Conducting Competition, which brought the prize of a two-year contract as assistant conductor to the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. He worked at Bournemouth for two seasons and then accepted another permanent conducting post, again for two years, with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. The contrast between these two posts was instructive: at Bournemouth he was constrained by the commercial requirements of a provincial orchestra to programme almost exclusively popular works; whereas in Scotland by contrast, given the BBC’s mission ‘to educate and inform’, he was able to programme a much wider range of music, normally beyond the reach of a non-broadcasting symphony orchestra. During this period Rattle also worked with three opera companies: the English Music Theatre in 1976 (The Threepenny Opera), Glyndebourne Touring Opera in 1975 and its parent company Glyndebourne Festival Opera in 1977 (The Cunning Little Vixen), and developed a relationship with the London Sinfonietta. In 1980 he was appointed chief conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO): a key post which Rattle held for eighteen years before relinquishing it in the summer of 1998.

Throughout his period in Birmingham Rattle accepted engagements abroad, for instance with the Rotterdam Philharmonic and Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestras, with both of which he had permanent guest appointments; and purely guest engagements with other American orchestras such as the Boston and Cleveland Orchestras. From 1980 to 1985 he had a contract with the Philharmonia Orchestra to conduct them exclusively in London, while in Europe his most significant debuts took place with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in 1987 and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra during its 1993–1994 season. His opera conducting continued at Glyndebourne (Ariadne auf Naxos, Der Rosenkavalier, The Love for Three Oranges, L’Heure Espagnole and L’Enfant et les sortilèges, Porgy and Bess—all with the London Philharmonic Orchestra; Le nozze di Figaro, Così fan tutte, Don Giovanni, Fidelio, Idomeneo—with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment); at English National Opera (Kát’a Kabanová); at Covent Garden (The Cunning Little Vixen, Parsifal, and Sophie’s Choice by Nicholas Maw); and abroad in Amsterdam (Parsifal and Tristan und Isolde); Paris (Jenůfa); Vienna (Parsifal), and at the Aix-en-Provence Festival (The Makropoulos Case). Rattle’s career up to 1998 was unusual in that he maintained the directorship of a symphony orchestra for eighteen years, resisting offers to work permanently elsewhere, and by the end of this period he was the longest-serving music director of any orchestra in Europe.

Two of Rattle’s over-riding priorities have been growth and change, and by staying put in Birmingham he was able to use the leverage of his growing international fame to good effect. In 1986 the CBSO launched a development plan which significantly increased its grants from Birmingham City Council. This addition to the orchestra’s income enabled it to pay its players more money and to increase its numbers: both factors in improving performance, by attracting better players, and by enlarging the orchestra’s potential repertoire by virtue of its increased size. Furthermore, in 1991 Rattle and his orchestra opened a new concert hall in Birmingham, Symphony Hall, which was especially built for them and which is arguably the best building of its kind in the United Kingdom. In June 1999, Rattle was appointed chief conductor and artistic director of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, the most important post in the field of orchestral music in Europe, taking up his appointment in 2002. His predecessors in this post have been Arthur Nikisch, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Sergiu Celibidache, Herbert von Karajan and Claudio Abbado. He was awarded the CBE in 1987 and was knighted in 1994.

Rattle’s recording career has run in parallel to his career on the podium. He made his first record aged twenty in 1975, for the Argo record company, and further recordings for Argo and Decca appeared during the next seven years. Notable among these were the first recording of Peter Maxwell Davies’s Symphony No 1, with the Philharmonia Orchestra, and an excellent disc of music by Ravel, with the London Sinfonietta. On his first disc for EMI (1978), to whom he later became exclusively contracted, he accompanied Andrei Gavrilov with the London Symphony Orchestra in Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No 1 and the Piano Concerto for Left Hand by Ravel. However his breakthrough recording appeared in December 1980, shortly after he had taken up his Birmingham appointment: this was a recording of Mahler’s Symphony No 10 with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. The combination of good reviews and good sales of this disc, and his position as conductor of the CBSO, with which EMI already had a long-standing relationship, resulted in the appearance of a steady stream of recordings featuring the CBSO and Rattle from 1982 onwards. His exclusive contract with EMI commenced in 1983, and he is now one of the principal conductors to record for this label. Between 1976 (the year of release of his first recording) and the beginning of 1999, just before his Berlin appointment was made, eighty-one recordings conducted by Rattle had been published and a total of one hundred and six releases, including reissues and compilations, had appeared, representing an average of four and a half discs appearing each year. By any standards he is now a significant recording artist, particularly for a conductor of his age.

Rattle’s conducting style has certain characteristics that are constant. On the podium in concert he is physically highly animated, using his facial expressions and eyes especially to indicate his intentions. His priorities are clarity and precision, and the two go hand in hand. The precision of his conducting of, for instance, Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé, gives it a clarity of texture that enhances the music, and has led him to develop a concentration on detail. As the critic Edward Seckerson put it, ‘God is in the detail. And it’s not just the notes, he’ll tell you, but the reasons for them—that’s where music-making really begins.’ At the same time Rattle does not eschew the lush orchestral textures which contemporary orchestras can produce. His readings of the music of the Second Viennese School composers (for instance his recording of Berg’s Three Pieces for Orchestra, Op 6) combine clarity with orchestral richness, and this combination also relates the music to its major antecedent, the compositions of Gustav Mahler, of which he is currently a leading interpreter. Rattle’s musical quest for clarity of texture, structure and tone are also particularly effective in the performance of music by composers such as Janáček and Szymanowski. Since the mid 1980s Rattle has been an enthusiastic conductor of performances on period instruments, most frequently with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (OAE). The adoption of period performance practice has energised Rattle’s readings of Haydn (for instance in his recordings of the Symphonies Nos 60, 70 and 90 with the CBSO) and of Mozart (as in his live recording of Così fan tutte with the OAE). His over-riding preoccupation in performance is to achieve the appropriate style or ‘pronunciation’ of the period from which the music being performed is drawn, while recognising that these attempts will involve risk and that not all performances will be successful. Unlike previous conductors, such as Furtwängler and Karajan, who essentially worked within a uniform performance style, Rattle seeks to realise ‘the maximum diversity of tradition’, to quote his biographer, Nicholas Kenyon. The practical application of this philosophy is the pursuit of variety, which works strongly against the homogeneity of performance and interpretation that recordings may encourage. What Rattle is seeking is to get the varying grammar of performance known, accepted and understood in the appropriate repertoire. In this he has to date been largely successful.

© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Conductors, Naxos 8.558087–90).

Role: Conductor 
Album Title
Catalogue No  Work Category 
Classical Concert
Classical Concert
HENZE, Hans Werner: Memoirs of an Outsider (NTSC) Arthaus Musik
Classical Documentary
HENZE, Hans Werner: Memoirs of an Outsider (PAL) Arthaus Musik
Classical Documentary
LEAVING HOME: Orchestral Music in the 20th Century (NTSC) Arthaus Musik
Classical Documentary, Choral - Sacred, Classical Documentary
LEAVING HOME: Orchestral Music in the 20th Century, Vol. 1: Dancing On A Volcano (NTSC) Arthaus Musik
Classical Documentary
LEAVING HOME: Orchestral Music in the 20th Century, Vol. 2: Rhythm (NTSC) Arthaus Musik
Classical Documentary
LEAVING HOME: Orchestral Music in the 20th Century, Vol. 3: Colours (NTSC) Arthaus Musik
Classical Documentary
LEAVING HOME: Orchestral Music in the 20th Century, Vol. 4: 3 Journeys Through Dark Landscapes (NTSC Arthaus Musik
Classical Documentary
LEAVING HOME: Orchestral Music in the 20th Century, Vol. 5: The American Way (NTSC) Arthaus Musik
Classical Documentary
LEAVING HOME: Orchestral Music in the 20th Century, Vol. 6: After the Wake (NTSC) Arthaus Musik
Classical Documentary
LEAVING HOME: Orchestral Music in the 20th Century, Vol. 7: Threads (NTSC) Arthaus Musik
Classical Documentary
MAW, N.: Sophie's Choice (Royal Opera House, 2002) (NTSC) Opus Arte
Opera DVD
Orchestral Music - CHABRIER, E. / HAYDN, J. / BACH, J.S. / WAGNER, R. / HANDEL, G.F. (BR Klassik Greatest Moments) (Bavarian Radio Symphony) BR-Klassik
RATTLE, Simon: Sir Simon Rattle Conducts and Explores Music of the 20th Century (3-Blu-ray Disc Box Set) Arthaus Musik
Classical Documentary
RATTLE, Simon: Sir Simon Rattle Conducts and Explores Music of the 20th Century (5-DVD Box Set) (NTSC) Arthaus Musik
Classical Documentary
REVOLUTION DER KLANGE (DIE): Musik im 20. Jahrhundert (NTSC) Arthaus Musik
Classical Documentary
REVOLUTION DER KLANGE (DIE): Musik im 20. Jahrhundert, Vol. 7: Zu neuen Ufern (NTSC) Arthaus Musik
Classical Documentary
Sophia - Biography of a Violin Concerto (Documentary, 2007) (NTSC) Arthaus Musik
Classical Documentary
WAGNER, R.: Rheingold (Das) [Opera] (Volle, E. Kulman, Konieczny, B. Ulrich, Bavarian Radio Symphony, Rattle) BR-Klassik
WALDBUHNE IN BERLIN 1995 - American Night (Marshall, Rattle) (PAL) Arthaus Musik
Classical Concert, Opera DVD, Classical Concert
Classical Concert

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