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Does Rattle's illustrious Berlin predecessor make Rattle's Bruckner look unsatisfactory?
on 13 March 2012
Anyone who is blessed enough to own Karajan's DG box set of the complete Bruckner symphonies knows what it means to be swept away by glorious vision. With the Berliners, he was able to achieve a frightening intensity of control. His Bruckner had a spacious feeling, a feeling that makes the listener feel that he is on a mountain top, wallowing in the glory and majesty of his elevated position yet keenly aware of what's above him, namely God himself.
So when Sir Simon Rattle records the Bruckner 4th with the same orchestra used by Karajan, he is up against very high odds. For many, Rattle must outshine Karajan or vindicate the premise that the great conductors have vanished from off the face of the earth. His job is made doubly difficult by the fact that many listeners view Karajan's nearly bombastic approach as the only way. For them, competing with Karajan will mean surpassing Karajan in terror and strength.
I hate to break the news to you, but if Rattle must rival Karajan's iron grip to achieve success, he's failed miserably. Frankly, I don't think any conductor will ever be able to replace Karajan in what he stood for. But I'm reluctant to accept the premise that Karajan's way is the only way. Rattle realizes that imitating Karajan is the sign of a follower--and we expect more from the conductor of the world's greatest orchestra. But thankfully, Rattle attempts to show us that life after Karajan means new ways of looking at Bruckner.
This is Bruckner's "Romantic" Symphony and Rattle seems aware of this fact. For him, this symphony has extreme potential for sensitive beauty. Rattle's Berliners have far greater freedom of expressivity than they did under Karajan which Rattle takes advantage of; he offers nuances that you won't get with Karajan. Absent is the thick wall of sound that characterized Karajan's reign with the orchestra. The orchestra's tone is still just as dark and rich, however. Instead of being hit by everything all at once as with Karajan, Rattle boasts transparency. Karajan could deliver powerful chords with such vigor that the listener wonders if he has been shot. Rattle doesn't match Karajan in this respect, but I was taken off guard by how close he comes. Rattle can struggle with wallowing in the sound of the Berliners and holding back power, but he doesn't here.
Listening to Rattle share his feelings on this symphony, he said many things that were eerily reminiscent of Karajan. The stress the two place on the overall vision of the work is strikingly similar. Rattle stated that he found it essential to find one pulse for the whole work, seeing need for control. He also spoke of how the melodies seemingly go on forever but how it is imperative that the music also stops and breathes. In these regards, Karajan and Rattle differ little. The difference is in the execution. Karajan is speaking of smoky mountains and specializes in creating a chilling reverence that certainly evokes fear. Rattle wants us to hear the charm in the symphony. He doesn't want Bruckner to seem uncompromising; warmth lies on every page. There's an innocent side to Bruckner he let us hear, a lyricism that is strikingly Schubertian. You don't get that with Karajan. Rattle voices the symphony with such love that it is almost unbearably beautiful. Yet he never misses the overall vision; there's always a sense of breadth.
Does Rattle better Karajan? I'm not qualified to answer as both interpretations are utterly compelling in their own unique way--too great for mortals to judge. But I would argue that Rattle has offered us Bruckner that is worthy of comparison with Karajan. Both interpretations are vastly different and many will feel that Karajan is far superior. For myself, I don't think it's one or the other. I'm awfully privileged to own them both.