Rattle, and now James
Levine: it’s been a bad week for hugely-admired conductors being sniped
at in the press, all the more so for me personally, since these are both at
the very top of my list of favourite living maestros. So what gives?
The attack on Rattle has been led by Axel Brüggemann, who wrote an article
for Welt am Sonntag headlined "Simon von Rattle". The basic thesis
seems to be that Rattle, despite starting off wonderfully, is now lapsing into
the authoritarian excesses of his feared-and-revered predecessor Herbert von
Karajan. The famous marriage between Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic seems
to have hit a rocky patch, according to Brüggemann, who says in his wonderfully
German way that "while Rattle romps expressively on the podium, the Philharmonic
musicians sometimes tend to play as inconsequentially as if they were a wife
reaching to the fridge to get out a beer for her husband".
The Guardian article also notes that the Rattle/Berlin Proms last year were
"underwhelming" and "bland", while his Idomeneo at Glyndebourne
also received mixed reviews. That said, he seems to be fighting back with the
scheduling for this year’s Proms: Beethoven’s Ninth on the Sunday, followed
by Messiaen’s magnificent Éclairs sur l’Au-delà… on
the Monday – the kind of piece which would have brought Karajan out in
a cold sweat.
But it’s certainly possible that the Berlin Philharmonic, despite loving Rattle
as a guest conductor for many years before he took over as music director, is
now having institutional second thoughts. Perhaps the two are more suited for
a torrid affair than for a decades-long marriage. (And the relationship could
conceivably last that long: Rattle is only 48, after all, and conductors are
While conductors do often get better with age, after all, it’s only natural
to expect the more mercurial conductors, like Rattle, to have some problems
with consistency. And while Rattle did wonders with the City of Birmingham Symphony
Orchestra, he was not burdened at the time with the sky-high expectations that
accompanied him to Berlin, nor with the institutional inertia of a band as heavy
and storied as the Berlin Phil.
My guess is that if Rattle is having some difficulties right now – and
really I have little reason to believe that he is – he will not only overcome
them, but turn the experience to his advantage. Something of a prodigy, his
rise in the music world has been steady and largely obstacle-free, and as horn
player Howard Howard (really) says of James Levine, "personal hardship
tends to make more of an artist – I think you hear the difference between
someone who has had a happy, secure life and someone who has had some misery."
I’m less sanguine about Levine, however. I’m glad I saw him quite a lot when
I first moved to New York seven years ago, because thinking back to more recent
performances, I’ve not felt the same kind of fire. And the complaints certainly
have the ring of truth about them: that, conducting sitting down, he gradually
slumps, over the course of long operas to the point at which players at the
back of the pit can’t even see the baton any more – which, in any case,
he barely bothers to move.
To say that "my major communication tool always is my eyes" is all
well and good, but that’s true of Rattle as well, and he certainly uses his
hands to great effect the whole time. I’m actually a fan of minimalist conductors
who don’t jump up and down and get all excited, but the one thing they all have
in common is that they beat time very clearly. Levine seems to be using his
orchestra’s depth of experience as a crutch which allows him to put minimal
physical energy into his performances, and I’m not sure that’s a good thing.
Rattle and Levine both, of course, are greatly praised by the managers of their
orchestras, but such praise can become self-defeating when you have the managing
director of the Boston Symphony say that Levine’s "energy level is still
way beyond the norm". That’s clearly not true: for one thing, he conducts
even the shortest programmes sitting down. In general, praise only means something
when it’s conceivable that the person doing the praising could conceivably say
anything else, and that doesn’t seem to be the case with respect to the people
quoted in these articles.
Now that Levine’s contract has been extended to 2011, in fact, I’m a little
bit worried about the future of the Met Orchestra – probably the best
orchestra in the USA. Valery Gergiev has been getting decidedly mixed reviews
of late: it seems he might have the same strain of Russian hubris that afflicts
people like Yuri Bashmet, who start believing their own hype to the point at
which they think they’re above things like rehearsals and preparatory work.
If neither Levine nor Gergiev is performing at the height of his abilities,
there’s certainly a risk that the Met Orchestra will start a long, slow decline