Poor old Simon Rattle's about as popular with music critics in the British press as Gordon Brown is nowadays. Having seemingly been able to do nothing wrong during his rise to prominence as the Assistant Conductor of the Bournemouth Symphony and Royal Liverpool Philharmonic and then Principal Conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, the tide started to turn when he became Principal Conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic – easily the apex of any conductor's career ambitions – in 2002.
After their first season together, the Berlin press started to attack Rattle's concerts, perceiving a drop in the quality of the music making, the unpicking of the BPO's famous golden timbre and the deviation from core German repertoire. Some also regretted the fact that Rattle had been appointed instead of the very popular Daniel Barenboim. And yet, the fact is that Rattle's tenure has brought enormous benefits to the orchestra, which has gained artistic independence from the Berlin Senate and apparently enjoyed a significant pay rise in recent years. The establishment of an education programme has also been a benefit to the community, and the orchestra's exploration of, and commissioning of, new music has taken them in new directions. As a sign of their approval, the orchestra has extended Rattle's contract for another decade until 2020 – and since they have the power to choose whomsoever they like, that's surely proof positive that they're content with him.
And if anyone was unhappy at his repertoire choices, here's something as mainstream and conventional as you could want: a complete cycle of Brahms' symphonies, recorded live in concert over the course of a few weeks in 2008. (As an aside, it's curious to note how EMI has almost taken on the function of ‘LSO Live' for the BPO, rarely if ever making studio recordings any more.)
Sadly, the results are less than thrilling. Quite apart from specific complaints or instances where personal taste might require something different to Rattle's decisions, there seems to be a general lack of communion with the material. Considering the orchestra's long-standing tradition of Brahms performances, it's quite shocking how tame the performances are; the overriding flavour is monochrome when it should be in Technicolor.
With the First Symphony, there's a surprisingly narrow dynamic range, especially given the fact that the performance comes from a live concert. The glorious opening of the first movement is almost matter-of-fact in its leaden delivery, and throughout the piece it's as if Rattle has deliberately muted the climaxes in an attempt to find a Classical lightness of texture. It needs more tension, though, and if the conductor is looking for an ‘inner' dialogue, it's not really apparent. Nor is the slow movement as affecting as it could be: where is the poetry in that great expansive theme?
For me, the Second Symphony is something of an improvement on the intensity front: the first movement has an urgency about it that is lacking in the First Symphony, and the brilliance of the playing is hugely impressive. The graceful Allegretto and spirited finale – what an outburst, and what strong accents! – also contribute to a fine performance, even if it doesn't knock the finest historical accounts off their perch.
The Third Symphony also has its moments, but there's a pedestrian feel to the tempo of the first movement: instead of allowing for fluidity, somehow Rattle's approach is a little pedantic in terms of pulse. The accents seem placed rather than deeply felt. Nor is the Andante quite comfortable, and those constant hairpin dynamics aren't as breathtaking as they might be; for my taste, the finale is – like the opening – on the slow side, as well as lacking in depth.
The Fourth Symphony is more satisfying: I still find the tempos a touch slow, but there's an irresistible beauty to the playing that can't be taken for granted. Here, the BPO seem to achieve a sense of apotheosis, and the contrasts of dynamic and tension are much broader than in the other symphonies. The slow movement, of course, is the ideal showcase for the orchestra's outstanding woodwind section, and if I'd like more levity and urgency in the third movement, it's made up for by the drama of the finale.
On the whole, though, I feel this really is one for Rattle fans only. Such over-recorded staple repertoire has to have something special to recommend it, and for me this cycle doesn't quite reach the top ten.