A rebellion had been simmering for months. Leading a great orchestra rarely commands unanimous support and the Berlin Philharmonic are a notably murmurous group, seldom united for long behind one baton – as Claudio Abbado discovered to his dismay in the 1990s.
Mutterings of discontent with Rattle’s leadership began with a couple of section principals who said they were reconsidering their position in 2013*. Others chimed in. Senior orchestra members looked around and saw they were losing ground to their rivals – most rapidly to Dresden where Christian Thielemann is taking the cream of DG recordings that used to be Berlin’s by right. (Rattle’s recording relationship is with dormant EMI Classics.)
Thielemann is also selling faster in the Salzburg Easter Festival, which the Berlin Philharmonic rashly vacated for a quick-cash move to Baden-Baden. He outshines the Berliners on New Year’s Eve TV. Barenboim at the Berlin Opera carries more political weight. Chailly in Leipzig and Jansons in Munich are claiming turf that used to be Berlin’s.
The best way for Berlin to recapture its primacy was to make changes at the top. No-one had openly made that suggestion, but it was clear that the discontent could only grow in the months ahead. Rattle, reading the writing on the wall, made a pre-emptive announcement today that portrays his departure as reasoned and well-planned. The initiative is back in his hands. He can look strong and determined during the time that he works out his long notice and arranges how own future.
From the tone of their response, it looks like he caught the orchestras two commercial chairmen on the hop and sent them rushing to a smoke-free room to discuss the future. Their next move take prolonged deliberation.
* In an earlier version of this post, we suggested that players’ contracts were up for renewal. This was based on a hasty mistranslation of a German message. We have corrected it in the present version. Apologies for any misapprehension.