The frustration of the classical music industry

Orchestra insiders giving a mole’s eye view of musical intrigues are currently the hot thing in the media. The Guardian’s contribution is Philippa Ibbotson, who is billed as ‘a freelance violinist’, and yesterday she gave us the inside track on Simon Rattle’s current problems with the Berlin critics. Ms Ibbotson takes many words (I suspect her favourite composer is Havergal Brian) to tell us that Rattle's problems in Berlin are because ‘in classical music … self-promotion has become an art in its own right. But Rattle does not play the game. He is a democrat, not an autocrat’. Now I am sure Philippa Ibbotson is a very fine violinist, but her take on the Rattle problem is rather off-key.

I have been a very great admirer of Simon since being able to make a very small contribution by arranging one of the first ever classical recording sponsorship deals for his Mahler 10 with the Bournemouth Symphony in the 1970’s. But we have to accept that he is a truly fine musician who has been very cleverly promoted by his agent who starred in my story No such thing as an unknown Venezuelan conductor. This was about agent and power-broker Askonas Holt's wunderkind conductor Gustavo Dudamel, whose advocates include Askonas Holt artist Simon Rattle. There has also, perfectly understandably, been vigorous promotion, with Simon's full participation, by his record company EMI, by his Berlin orchestra (also Askonas Holt artists), and by innovative, and deserving, projects such as the film Rhythm Is It!

The problem is that despite all this promotion Simon’s performances, and recordings, are more often very fine than truly great. If I want to listen to Mahler I will turn to other great conductors such as Klaus Tennstedt (right) and Jascha Horenstein who also had a distaste for self-promotion and autocracy. Regular readers will know my exposure to Herbert von Karajan and his court (circus?) when he was an EMI artist in the 1970s left me with a distaste for his autocracy. But Karajan's Mahler 9 is something I repeatedly return to when I want help putting life into perspective, while his readings of Bruckner 8, Don Carlos and Salome that I heard with the Berlin and Vienna orchestras live in Salzburg can only be described as transcendental. And the current totally justified esteem that Bernard Haitink (also an Askonas Holt artist) and Colin Davis (not an Askonas Holt artist) are held in thankfully proves that self-promotion, autocracy and mortality are not necessary to achieve true musical greatness.

The shouts from the Berlin critics are not an attack on Simon Rattle. They are the collective cries of frustration of the short-term fixated classical music industry which has found once again that there is no fast-track to musical greatness. Simon Rattle is just 51. Musical greatness will come. But whether the Berlin critics and orchestra, his record company, and Simon himself will have the patience to wait for it remains to be seen.

Photo credits: Simon Rattle - Doris Wild, Klaus Tennstedt - Any copyrighted material on these pages is used in "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and other errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk
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Anonymous said…
Barbirolli made an unforgettable Mahler 9 with the Berlin Phil..still one of the best.
Pliable said…
Anonymous - how right you are. I have that Barbirolli Mahler 9 in the CD reissue and it is truly glorious. It was remiss of me not to mention it.

It is a sadness to me that my article 'Glorious John' in New York doesn't attract more readers, perhaps 'Glorious John' needs an Askonas Holt?
Berend de Boer said…
Self promotion in classical music has become ...?

Wasn't Bizet a more brilliant pianist than Liszt, but less good looking?
Shablagoo! said…
"But Karajan's Mahler 9 is something I repeatedly return to when I want help putting life into perspective, while his readings of Bruckner 8, Don Carlos and Salome that I heard with the Berlin and Vienna orchestras live in Salzburg can only be described as transcendental."

Yes, artistic greatness and insight can come from the most peculiar and irritating of sources. I still don't think many conductors can touch Karajan when he was at his very best in repetoire he closely identified with such as Bruckner, Sibelius and Strauss. For all his eccentricities, dubious personality traits, and mostly pointless digital re-recordings he was the end of an era.
Pliable said…
Daniel I can only agree wholeheartedly with your setiments which you express so well.

Nevertheless Karajan's eccentricities and dubious personality traits do give almost endless possibilities for future articles ...
Anonymous said…
Musical greatness will come.

Are you taking bets?

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