Conductor Simon Rattle took his Berlin Philharmonic and symphonies by Beethoven to Carnegie Hall for a week-long residency. i

Conductor Simon Rattle took his Berlin Philharmonic and symphonies by Beethoven to Carnegie Hall for a week-long residency. AJ Wilhelm/NPR hide caption

toggle caption AJ Wilhelm/NPR
Conductor Simon Rattle took his Berlin Philharmonic and symphonies by Beethoven to Carnegie Hall for a week-long residency.

Conductor Simon Rattle took his Berlin Philharmonic and symphonies by Beethoven to Carnegie Hall for a week-long residency.

AJ Wilhelm/NPR

Classics in Concert

Beethoven Symphonies At Carnegie Hall Via BerlinWQXR radio

Beethoven Symphonies At Carnegie Hall Via Berlin
Audio is no longer available

Why do Beethoven's symphonies remain so appealing? It's a question we put to Simon Rattle a few years ago after he had finished conducting the Vienna Philharmonic in all nine of them.

"There's nothing harder," Rattle said, "and at the end of it all, nothing more rewarding. This is one of the great monuments of Western art." Those performances were recorded for a set released in 2003.

This week, Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic have been playing the Beethoven cycle at Carnegie Hall, nearly selling out every show. Our colleagues at WQXR had their microphones set up for Thursday night's performance of the Sixth and Eighth.

"There's a wonderful old saying that goes, 'Always journey, but never consent to arrive,'" Rattle said. "When you play pieces which are as great as this, you never must allow yourself to feel you have got anywhere. The journey is extraordinary, but it will never cease. And every time we pick up these extraordinary symphonies we will learn something new."

For this Carnegie concert, Rattle began with Beethoven's Eighth, often considered the lightest of them. He said it packs a punch, calling it "a piece full of charm and wit and sometimes enormous gusts of wind." Rattle said it's also a look back to the symphonic traditions of Joseph Haydn, but with Beethoven's unique brand of twisted humor.

"People maybe were not ready for someone who could mix so much profound, deep feeling with humor, with surprise, sometimes with silliness, with grotesquerie," Rattle said. "A characteristic point is the last movement, which has, again and again, a phrase that gets quieter and quieter, and suddenly the orchestra slams in with a note that has nothing to do with the main key. It is very characteristic Beethoven. People were very puzzled by this. It's in many ways still the least played of the symphonies, which I think is tragedy because it is really a real gem."

Beethoven's "Pastoral" Sixth, though cast in the same key, F major, is a different story altogether.

"It's not only a picture of nature," Rattle said, "even though it is full of real birdsongs — the sounds of a real quail, of a nightingale, a cuckoo, etc. It's also a picture of his ideal type of ideal humanity. The fourth movement is a storm, but there's no question that this is not really about weather. It is the type of dark night of the soul that Beethoven had gone through."

Amid all of the natural elements in that symphony, Rattle found a strong human spirit.

"It is of the earth, it is of the country and of the people," the conductor said. "I've always felt that this is the symphony that is most profoundly populated with the human race. It is a characteristic Beethoven statement that everything that is good comes from within people, and from the honestly and purity of people."

So yet again, as this week closes, Rattle has journeyed through another cycle of Beethoven's bold, compassionate and rigorously constructed symphonies. The experience, he said, is hard to describe in words.

"Which is why we're musicians, rather than writers or politicians," he said. "But I've always had a profound conviction that great music is about joy, even in the face of tragedy. And I think there is no music that struggles through to joy in quite the way these pieces do."

Program:
  • Symphony No. 8 in F, Op. 93
  • Symphony No. 6 in F, Op. 68

Berlin Philharmonic, Simon Rattle, conductor

[+] read more[-] less

More From Classical

Yuja Wang played a demanding program at Carnegie Hall, topped by four encores. Ebru Yildiz/for NPR hide caption

toggle caption Ebru Yildiz/for NPR

Carnegie Hall Live

Yuja Wang Plays Carnegie Hall

WQXR radio

Hear one of today's most charismatic pianists tackle the toughest sonata Beethoven could muster.

Yuja Wang Plays Carnegie Hall
  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/477930830/478244355" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

Conductor Mariss Jansons led the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall Wednesday in Shostakovich's Symphony No. 7, "Leningrad." AJ Wilhelm for NPR hide caption

toggle caption AJ Wilhelm for NPR

Carnegie Hall Live

The 'Leningrad' Symphony At Carnegie Hall

WQXR radio

Mariss Jansons leads the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in Shostakovich's wartime epic.

The 'Leningrad' Symphony At Carnegie Hall
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/474662768/475125195" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

Michael Mizrahi channels the harpsichord in new music by Troy Herion. Eno Swinnen/Courtesy of the Artist hide caption

toggle caption Eno Swinnen/Courtesy of the Artist

All Songs TV

First Watch: Michael Mizrahi, 'Harpsichords'

Pianist Michael Mizrahi channels old school harpsichord music in a new piece by Troy Herion.

Music director Iván Fischer leading an Budapest Festival Orchestra concert at Carnegie Hall in New York Thursday. A.J. Wilhelm for NPR hide caption

toggle caption A.J. Wilhelm for NPR

Carnegie Hall Live

Budapest Festival Orchestra Plays Carnegie Hall

Iván Fischer conducts a Liszt piano concerto with soloist Marc-André Hamelin.

Budapest Festival Orchestra Plays Carnegie Hall
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/466299701/467669984" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

Lawrence Brownlee performs with pianist Jason Moran in the active crypt below the historic Church of the Intercession in Harlem. NPR hide caption

toggle caption NPR

Field Recordings

Singing For Life In A Crypt In Harlem

Opera singer Lawrence Brownlee joins jazz pianist Jason Moran in an old spiritual.

Tiny Desk Concert with Teddy Abrams Jun Tsuboike/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Jun Tsuboike/NPR

Tiny Desk

Teddy Abrams

Hear a young conductor, composer and pianist play Beethoven and his own jazzy pieces.

Conductor Andris Nelsons led the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus Thursday in Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky at Carnegie Hall in New York. AJ Wilhelm for NPR hide caption

toggle caption AJ Wilhelm for NPR

Classics in Concert

A Tale Of Two Sergeys: Boston Symphony Orchestra At Carnegie Hall

WQXR radio

Andris Nelsons conducts Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky and Rachmaninov's Symphonic Dances.

A Tale Of Two Sergeys: Boston Symphony Orchestra At Carnegie Hall
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/451116807/451174052" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

Alan Gilbert leads the New York Philharmonic, with pianist Evgeny Kissin, at Carnegie Hall's gala opening concert, Oct. 7. AJ Wilhelm /for NPR hide caption

toggle caption AJ Wilhelm /for NPR

Carnegie Hall Live

The New York Philharmonic At Carnegie Hall

WQXR radio

Pianist Evgeny Kissin brings Tchaikovsky, and a sense of history, to Carnegie's opening concert.

The New York Philharmonic At Carnegie Hall
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/442287960/446705652" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
Back To Top