An Interview With Sir Simon Rattle

Tim Reynish March 9, 2000 at Symphony Hall, Birmingham

September 2002 is the date for Sir Simon Rattle to launch his first season with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, and two works for wind ensemble will feature. The first concerts include Schubert's Ninth Symphony, Mahler's Fifth and Bruckner's Ninth, but also Ravel's L'Enfant et les Sortilèges, Mark Anthony Turnage's Blood on the Floor and Magnus Lindberg's Gran Duo, and it was before a rehearsal of these last two works that Tim Reynish interviewed him at Symphony Hall, Birmingham on March 9th, 2000. The world premiere of the Magnus Lindberg had been given in London's Festival Hall the previous night, and was repeated in Birmingham, Vienna and Cologne.

Their virtuosity was matched by the CBSO's own players, who also gave the premiere of Magnus Lindberg's Gran Duo. In this gleaming 20-minute piece, for 13 wind and 11 brass instruments, the Finnish composer spun his textures and timbres with clean precision. The cycle of different harmonic and rhythmic moods flickers from skittering to sombre, airy to dense. He teases the instrumental lines apart then presses them back together as if opening and closing a beautiful agile squeeze-box. It is no sin for the listener, freed from an obligation to unearth hidden meaning, to relish Lindberg's power to charm. Fiona Maddox
The Observer 12/3/00

Tim Reynish

I'm glad you're still excited about wind - what pieces have you actually programmed with the CBSO, the Grainger, did you do the Hindemith Symphony?

Sir Simon Rattle

I didn't do that, Paul Daniel conducted it - all of the Messiaen pieces we've done, Les Couleurs, Oiseaux, Et Exspecto, all these things endlessly, Grainger and Mozart

Why is this work entitled Gran Duo?

It's a cap-doffing, if that's the word, towards the Gran Partita. We'll do quite a bit of it this afternoon - but you're here for the evening - we're bound to play all of it then.

I was so excited when you rang up about this piece. He wanted to use cellos and basses?

What's interesting is that the first thing he said to me was that "what I can't do is to do another commission for orchestra." He was almost the "man-of-the-moment" to write a standard twenty minute extraordinary orchestra piece. He said "Have you got any ideas"? and I said "Well this is what we need" and interestingly he played around with all kinds of things, because to start off with he thought he would use harps, piano and percussion, do the usual thing, and he was also going to use a lot of horns, six to eight placed antiphonally around the hall, and then gradually he decided to set himself more and more problems. He thought no, this is all extraneous, and what would be really interesting to do now is something that takes the two halves of the wind orchestra to give them their own different personality and then see how it meshes without any outside help or interference, and obviously taking Stravinsky as his mentor, but also using the type of discipline of Sibelius. If Sibelius had carried on writing ... there is absolutely the ghost of his writing, and he also was wanting to do something which was not musically outlandish but which would take the instruments to their furthest possible extreme.

Its very interesting, because for so many years when you look at new scores, you say "Now what would happen if composers actually wrote the pieces as players eventually notated them" because in fact it looks very simple but rhythmically it is very complicated and very intricate, and what he's done is to actually write it so that one is not faced with having to play 4 in the time of 7, he's just written it all in for you, so in fact to get it right is quite something.

I often feel with some composers who write 4 in the time of 7, or 11 or 13, you often do not get a clearly defined pulse or any sense of movement.

Absolutely, but this idea of all of the rhythms superimposing on each other which blur in the next entry, arriving from a distance and coming forward he's done masterfully, and with respect, the problem that we all often have with wind ensembles, we're desperate for there to be a sustaining pedal - it's the problem when you conduct the Liszt Faust Symphony, for instance, and you have to say to the orchestra well imagine that you are playing a piano and you have to supply the sustaining pedals somehow and in fact it was Wagner who invented that kind of technique, the overlapping of instruments, and this is what he has done so masterfully apart from in the Festival Hall acoustic - it didn't quite wreck the piece but made into something quite completely different, like dessicated coconut as opposed to the real thing with the milk inside, it suddenly felt all horrid and lonely.

Are there balance problems, because he seems to notate forte for the winds just as he does for the brass?

Only a little, we've played around with dynamics with his permission, its often because there are so many overlapping things, its often as a new section starts, they just simply have to start louder than marked, for a bar or even sometimes for a beat. But in fact as long as everyone knows they are really playing in balance, as long as the brass is smart about it, not particularly.

What is incredible is that although there is some impressive loud writing, its not overtly aggressive.

Are most wind pieces are aggressive? Of course you've got more experience of the ...

Oh come on, some people like Daugherty and Rouse often go for the more aggressive side of the wind band but Lindberg has a wonderful lyricism.

Avoiding Stereotypes

Again, he said to me, he wanted to avoid enormous extremes as that seemed almost too easy, to avoid stereotypes and the thing is that although a lot of it is very difficult to play, it is so well written for each individual instrument, that everyone feels well then we have to be able to play it. The only things that we've had to change at all were a couple of the first clarinet things which he is playing on the Eb clarinet and this afternoon I'm going to just play around with a couple of bars played by flute instead of clarinet - its not that its unplayable, its just un-tuneable up at that level.

The other thing that it has is a very very convincing shape, because he has this way of winding things up and down that actually does make a really successful marriage. The other thing we did was to add contra-bassoon to cover tuba breathing.

I have programmed this in the first weeks in Berlin and also we have commissioned a wonderful young German composer, Heiner Goebbels, a great composer, who is almost the equivalent of their Mark-Anthony Turnage so I've commissioned from him a piece without strings, so there will be two of these in the first season. I think its good news. I was rather inspired by you commissioning that fantastic concerto from Richard Bennett that has to be done sometime, you've done it plenty of times, but it's a wonderful thing.

I feel that the wind ensemble, with or without saxophones, is terrific for contemporary music because it somehow does'nt have that greyness that so much contemporary pieces with strings have, a grey wash of strings in the background.

Don't Frighten The Horses Too Much

The problem is that contemporary composers often now have had to write now for the possibility of limited rehearsal so they tend to write pieces where all the wind parts are very virtuosic and the string parts can be put together in not too much rehearsal time, its like the problem of young play writers, nobody knows how to write for more than 4 or 5 characters on the stage anymore because they know if they do it wont be performed but a wonderful composers in the States often end up writing simple pieces for the American orchestral subscription series - "don't frighten the horses too much", - 15 minutes, beginning of the concert, lots of percussion, not too much rehearsal, and the point about a wind ensembles is that very often there is more time by the very nature of the fact that the players are quicker, but if you were using 16 first clarinets you'd be in trouble as well. or even four . there often more time and its interesting that in the second half of this concert with Mark-Anthony Turnage's Blood on the Floor, a lot of the movements which were originally conceived separately are basically are for a wind orchestra; I mean the movement Shout requires an electric guitar and a double bass, but it should be part of the wind orchestra's repertoire, a number of those movements don't need any strings at all, for a lot of today's composers it is the natural thing. Wonderful, in fact in the original scoring there are only nine strings, he's decided to bump it up because we are doing it much more acoustically than before.

For Messiaen's Éclair, his last great orchestral piece, there's very little for the strings to do; the basses only play for about two and half minutes of the time and most of the string section are required to play their own two movements only, most of it is for winds. Its very interesting, it would take someone about seven minutes on Sibelius Seven to make a complete wind band transcription of the third movement of the Éclair which is a heavenly fast moving scherzo of the superb Lyrebird and it would do what I think we all need which is to have more great music written for wind ensemble. I mean my vision is that there is a lot of first rate music but there is very little great music and the more we encourage composers to use the wind ensemble the better its going particularly with the generation of wind players that's out there now because it's a waste of a resource, When you listen, for instance, to Hugh Seenan's outrageous record of Roman Carnival for 32 horns, no problem, they can all do it.

Thea Musgrave wrote a work a little time ago for sixteen horns which was regarded as very difficult; I suspect it was too difficult a few years ago, and wouldn't be now.

No. What's extraordinary is that there is a generation coming out and around to whom none of this is any problem and what was interesting here is that one or two of the extras who were playing in the Messiaen were saying that they did it a few years ago with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and it took a lot longer to put together than here, because many of our extras are people coming out of college, They can cope easily if they've played enough of the style, not people who are horrendously able, in fact I think if they had any more technique they'd be an international menace, they wouldn't be allowed into the States!

Thirty years ago in the CBSO, we were sight-reading the Rite of Spring, and we thought it was enormously difficult.

Fortunately people still find Schubert Symphonies more difficult than anything else.