Los Angeles has had a better opportunity than any place else outside of Britain to follow the extraordinary career of Simon Rattle. He was in his early 20s when he made his American debut here; he served as principal guest conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic during the ‘80s; and he has been a regular visitor ever since. Though never a West Coast resident, he has nonetheless been as important a British export to music here as Hitchcock to film and Hockney to art.
Through the years, Rattle has offered confident and big-boned Haydn and Mahler, Rachmaninoff and Stravinsky, that have grown impressively in intensity and poise as he has matured. The Berg “Wozzeck” he conducted for L.A. Opera remains one of the highlights of the company’s first decade. At age 42, and already knighted, Rattle has become a conductor to whom one would most readily trust the big, important works of the late 19th and much of the 20th century.
But have you noticed a central composer lacking in all of this, the one composer no conductor can ignore? Only in the past couple of years has Rattle begun making a significant Beethovenian statement. Last year he presented Britain with a cycle of Beethoven symphonies of reported distinction. He has a new recording of Beethoven’s first two piano concertos with young German soloist Lars Vogt.
Last year, Rattle offered Los Angeles a sample of his current thinking on Beethoven with the Fifth Symphony. But it wasn’t until the weekend--when he returned to conduct the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl in the First Piano Concerto (with Vogt as soloist) and the monumental Ninth Symphony--that Rattle truly revealed just what an important Beethoven conductor he is.
Rattle comes to Beethoven a master. He brings his vast skill to generating large Beethovenian forms, to producing the weight and substance of Beethoven’s sound. He knows well the implications of Beethoven’s radical rhythms and harmony and his revolutionary vision, which spawned the forward-looking music of the 19th and 20th century.
But Rattle also comes to Beethoven with late-20th century ears, which means he has also absorbed the lesson that period practice has taught about the music of Beethoven’s time.
Rattle’s Beethoven is the best of both worlds. In fact, it is both worlds. It has that sassiness of sound and spirit that marks the period practice approach, where the attempt is to capture for a jaded modern audience that radical newness and originality that was Beethoven. But Rattle doesn’t forsake that overwhelming grandeur of sound and spirit that is Beethoven’s legacy to later composers, a grandeur that still can bowl us over.
In other words, Rattle is the big guy who can ride a racehorse like a jockey. His Ninth was big and full but also fleet (though never with the sense of beating the clock that some period practice performances have). Momentum was irresistible but never at the sacrifice of the outsize scope of Beethoven’s mystical vision of the Ninth as a representation of the world, of his all-encompassing challenge to humanity to rise into a universal brotherhood.
And we got the details, the marvelous details of Beethoven’s music. This was thanks, of course, to Rattle’s own ability to be specific, and his reseating the orchestra with first and second violins divided also helped. But mainly it was the sheer power of his communicativeness. The orchestra and the Los Angeles Master Chorale were alive to the moment, the four soloists--Amanda Halgrimson, Janis Taylor, Vinson Cole and Jan Opalach--rare in their ability to be part of the ensemble, not soaring above it so much as with it.
The same feistiness and freshness marked Beethoven’s concerto. It is more youthful music, but as one of the first pieces in which Beethoven set to break the Classical mold with something more epic, it is happiest just as Rattle approached it--fast, light and still robust. Vogt too fit that vision. He is a captivating young player who just seems to glide across the keyboard. He can play dazzlingly fast, yet the dazzle is not the speed, it is the sense of articulation.
On his new recording of the concerto with Rattle, Vogt makes the daring choice of playing Glenn Gould’s peculiar cadenzas. At the Bowl, he played one of Beethoven’s--the third one the composer had written for the first movement. It is long, bold and even more peculiar than Gould’s. Vogt made a startling meal of it, which was typical of an entire evening in which Beethoven, so much an over-programmed and conventionally played staple of the Bowl, was made to sound as if he were a rare and essential visitor.