Berlin Arts

Goodbye Sir Simon

Berlin is losing one of its cultural figures: Sir Simon Rattle. The British maestro conducted his final concert in the Philharmonie––as the chief Dirigent of the city’s most renowned orchestra––last night. He returns to Britain to take on the artistic directorship of the London Symphony Orchestra.

Mahler 6 at the Berlin Philharmonic. 19 June 2018. Photo by Monika Rittershaus used with permission.

He brought to Berlin what many felt was an Anglo-Saxon touch. He was more communicative, and more interested in public education and outreach than, say, the popular Abbado. Perhaps these same qualities also invited criticism in a cagey Berlin arts world.

In this light, the choice of Mahler’s 6th as his final concert seems exactly right. There is not a trace of populism in the pick (that is saved for the hand-clapping programme at the Waldbühne this weekend). Mahler 6 is dark, murky matter––a challenging piece whose contrasts show the Berlin Philharmonic at its strongest.

Mahler’s 6th symphony is often described as the composer’s most pessimistic. It is named the ‘Tragic’, or the ‘Hammer’––because of the appearance of a violent mallet in the last movement (whose sound is supposed to be loud but brittle; it strikes as suddenly as an act of fate). The work is sombre-coloured and bracing ––think those repeated strokes by the basses in the opening movements––but like Janus, it has two faces. It is also ‘Mahler’s chamber music for than a hundred players’, to quote composer James Helgeson, and it is replete with delightful miniatures, and even the chiming of cow-bells.

“The Hammer”. Simon Rattle’s Farewell Concert. Photo by Monika Rittershaus used with permission.

There are few symphony orchestras that can pull off the violent superstructure. The first section that Rattle congratulated at the end of the performance was the basses. They drive it, and the Berlin Philharmonic’s dozen players gave it muscle.

But I was just as enchanted this evening by the careful Klangfarbenmelodie––to use a later term by Webern––moving from one instrument to another, with an almost miraculous matching then change of tone colour, such as when the basses’ melody is taken up by an instrument as unlikely as the tuba. Or by the unlikely contrasts: a delicate duet between a French hornist and the concertmaster.

The orchestra this evening under Rattle was able to do justice to both the explosive and violent, and also the careful internal Kammermusik of the piece. There are few better send-offs for the British maestro; from an orchestra that one often feels ‘conducts itself’. This was a piece whose complexity made Rattle appear indispensable.

Photo by Monika Rittershaus used with permission.

The return of Rattle to Britain happens at precisely the moment when Britain is turning inward and away from Europe. Brexit might be coincidental to his parting, but his departure is now resonant with a casting-out of artistic talent all over Europe––of EU citizens departing Britain––while the island calls back many of its own. In a way, Brexit is a hiccup in the ending (just as the final pluck of tonight’s concert had a chance dotted rhythm in the bass section).

Meanwhile, Kirill Petrenko, director of the Bavarian State Opera, will soon take over the baton. He was chosen by the Philharmonic musicians themselves (a rare right in the orchestral world; the process has been compared to the papal enclave). Petrenko is a Russian who emigrated to Austria; he is Jewish, young, and described as dynamic, very private, concise, not showman-like, but passionate… there are big hopes pinned on him.

As we pass through the gate, Janus looks forward.


Photo by Monika Rittershaus used with permission.

Joseph Pearson

Joseph Pearson (1975) is writer and historian based in Berlin. Born in Canada, he was educated at Cambridge University, UK, where he received his doctorate in history in 2001. Since 2008, he has written The Needle, which has become one of Berlin's most popular blogs. His portrait of the German capital, Berlin, for Reaktion Press was published in 2017. His second book, My Grandfather's Knife, was published by HarperCollins and the History Press in 2022. He is also the essayist and blogger of the Schaubühne Theatre, one of Berlin's best known state-funded institutions. His writing has appeared widely in the press, literary and academic journals, and has been translated into Italian, German, French, and Arabic. Having taught at Columbia University in New York City, he lectures in Berlin at New York University Berlin (since 2012) and the Barenboim-Said Academy.