NEW YORK (AP) — For Sir Simon Rattle, Beethoven was, of course, brilliant. And perhaps crazy.
How much of the composer's creativity was tied to his loss of hearing?
"If he had not been so cut off from the world by this cruel affliction, could he have gone to the place he went? I wonder," the British conductor said. "It's no wonder even many of his most intelligent contemporaries thought that he was insane. (Carl Maria von) Weber walked out after the first movement of the Seventh Symphony saying that he's no longer writing anything that could be called music, this is only fit for the lunatic asylum."
Long known as an advocate of contemporary composers, Rattle focused his fall on Beethoven. He conducted two complete cycles of the nine symphonies at Berlin's Philharmonie last month, then took the Berlin Philharmonic on tour for additional cycles in November at the Philharmonie de Paris, Vienna's Musikverein and New York's Carnegie Hall. One more is planned for Tokyo's Suntory Hall in May.
Rattle thought back to a conversation he had in 1988 with Herbert von Karajan, the Berlin Philharmonic's leader from 1955-89.
"When I had my last talk with Karajan, sitting in what's now my dressing room, he said, 'Oh, Simon, you know you have to write off your first 100 Beethoven Fifths.' At this point I'd conducted three, and so I gulped," Rattle recalled this month. "He could be a tough old bugger, obviously. He was very, very welcoming to young musicians. There was a kind of gruff charm about him."
Now 60, Rattle conducted his first Beethoven cycle with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in 1995 and led the Vienna Philharmonic in performances at Berlin, Tokyo and Vienna in 2001 and 2002 when EMI released a complete set. He became the Berlin Philharmonic's chief conductor in 2002 and conducted his first Beethoven cycle with that orchestra six years later.
"Sometimes at the beginning it was a struggle for me to bring everything I've learned from working for a quarter of a century with period instruments into Berlin," Rattle said, "but actually I think somewhere we've met, and that's very satisfying. There's a kind of energy and passion and fierceness of the way they play, which is irreplaceable, and for music like this, which seems to ask more energy and intensity than anyone can give, they're a wonderful fit."
Beethoven's symphonies premiered from 1800 through 1824 — three years before his death at age 56. Camillo Hildebrand conducted Berlin's first Beethoven cycle in April 1914, and Karajan conducted the nine symphonies with Berlin at Carnegie Hall in 1965.
At Tuesday night's Carnegie performance of the First and Third Symphonies, the opening of a two-season "Perspectives" series, Rattle used a pared-down string section with eight first violins rather than 12. He had three double basses for the First and five for the "Eroica," drawing exquisite playing from strings, woodwinds and brass. Strings bubbled for the Third's scherzo, and horns could have not played more delicately. Hunching his shoulders and sweeping his arms, his white mop of hair bobbing, Rattle elicited a performance of uncommon detail.
His first experience with the composer was on vinyl recordings, "some of the 78s that my dad collected when he was courting my mother, who ran a record store."
"My first 'Pastorale' was (Leopold) Stokowski and the Philadelphia on God knows how many sides," Rattle said. "I think it was a little bit of shock when I heard it in the concert, that it didn't keep on stopping, that it actually carried on."
He favored the idiosyncratic performances of Wilhelm Furtwaengler over the more brisk tempi of Arturo Toscanini. When he conducts the later symphonies, Rattle adds strings for a fuller sound, especially in the first two movements of the Ninth.
"As you go on, particularly the Ninth Symphony, it's inventing a new world," Rattle said. "And it's so clear that you are then somewhere else that it goes way beyond Wagner."
In recent years, the complete Beethoven symphonies have been performed at Carnegie by Claudio Abbado and the Vienna Philharmonic (1987), Nikolaus Harnoncourt and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe (1996), Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin (2000), and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra (2013).
Audio and video recordings of Rattle's Berlin performances last month are to be released by the Philharmonic in March.
These cycles are Rattle's method of focusing attention on Beethoven, the revolutionary.
"We should remember how astonishing and astounding and dangerous the music is now," Rattle said. "We know it so well, but we should never get used to it. Nobody has Francis Bacon on their walls in their house — or very few people — but sometimes people listen to Beethoven as though it was background and a comfort, and I think that is very dangerous."