Who is Simon Rattle? All you need to know about the British conductor, including his best recordings
We profile the great British conductor Simon Rattle, and choose some of his finest recordings on disc
He'll be conducting two farewell concerts with the London Symphony Orchestra at the 2023 BBC Proms. And he's one of the best known conductors in the business.
But who is Simon Rattle, which orchestras has he worked with, and what are some of his finest recordings on disc?
Who is Simon Rattle?
Simon Rattle is, put simply, one of the foremost conductors of his or any generation. Perhaps best noted for his work with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Berlin Philharmonic and London Symphony Orchestra, and with the orchestral works of Mahler, Beethoven, and Sibelius, Rattle has in fact conducted a wide range or repertoire, showing a particular affinity for adventurous orchestral work from the 20th century - by composers such as Bartók, Stravinsky and Szymanowski.
Rattle made his Proms debut in 1976, at the age of 21. A recent graduate of the Royal Academy and winner of the prestigious John Player International Conducting competition, Rattle - by then assistant conductor of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra - conducted the London Sinfonietta on 9 August 1976, with a programme including the première of Harrison Birtwistle’s Meridian.
How old is Simon Rattle?
Rattle was born on 19 January 1955, in Liverpool.
Where did Simon Rattle grow up?
Rattle grew up in Liverpool. As a child he learned the piano and violin, but also played percussion for the Merseyside Youth Orchestra (now the Liverpool Philharmonic Youth Orchestra). He later entered the Royal Academy of Music in 1971, at the age of 16.
Which orchestras has Rattle worked with?
Simon Rattle is best known for his tenure with three major orchestras. He spent nearly two decades (1980-1998) with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, where he recorded, among other things, a much-admired cycle of the Sibelius symphonies.
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Next came an extended spell as chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic. Rattle took on the role in 199, succeeding Claudio Abbado (Daniel Barenboim was the other candidate in the running). He remained with the Berlin Phil until 2018, producing, among other things, complete cycles of the symphonies of Beethoven, Brahms, and Mahler.
Latterly, Rattle has worked as music director of the London Symphony orchestra. He took on the role for the start of the 2017-18 concert season, and will give his final performances with the London Symphony during the 2023 BBC Proms. He leads them twice during the Proms: for a performance of Schumann's Das Paradies und Die Peri, with soloists including his wife Magdalena Kožená, and for Poulenc's Figure humaine (with the BBC Singers) and Mahler's Symphony No. 9 on Sunday 27 August.
Who is Simon Rattle married to?
Rattle is married to the Cezch mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená.
Simon Rattle best recordings
Camilla Tilling, Magdalena Kožená, Topi Lehtipuu, Mark Padmore, Christian Gerhaher, Thomas Quasthoff, Rundfunkchor Berlin/Simon Halsey, Berlin Philharmonic/Simon Rattle
Berlin Philharmonic BPHR140021
In our age of period instruments and historically-informed performance, you wouldn’t necessarily turn to the Berlin Philharmonic and the progressive Sir Simon for a top-quality St Matthew Passion. But that’s where you’d be mistaken.
In 2012 Simon Rattle teamed up with director Peter Sellars to create a dramatic ‘ritualisation’ of the St Matthew, and in turn one of its most moving interpretations. The choir and vocal soloists learned their parts by heart, leaving them free to move around the stage, hinting at both the unfolding drama and Bach’s vision of two orchestras and choirs facing each other, bound up in their profound, prayerful journey. The sound quality is sublime, the singing and playing sensational.
Words by: Oliver Condy
Percy Grainger: In a nutshell
Malcolm Wilson, Roderick Elms, Wayne Marshall, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Simon Rattle
Warner Classics 5564122
One of my most vivid memories of starting off as a young, impressionable editorial assistant on Classic CD magazine back in the summer of 1997 was the sound of Simon Rattle and the CBSO's (then) new disc of Grainger orchestral works floating through the office.
The opening In a Nutshell, the suite that gives the disc its title, is a gloriously quirky piece, ranging from the almost-hypnotic 'Pastoral' to the boisterous 'Gum-Suckers' march. Grainger's exotic orchestration of Ravel's La vallée des cloches, meanwhile, soon had me exploring the latter composer's piano music.
Wonderfully played and sumptuously recorded, it remains one of my favourite discs, not just by Simon Rattle, but in my entire collection.
Words by: Jeremy Pound
Ravel: L’Enfant et les sortilèges; Ma mère l’Oye
Soloists; Berlin Philharmonic, Berlin Radio Choir/Sir Simon Rattle
Warner Classics 2641972
I’ve just been watching one of the first Simon Rattle and London Symphony Orchestra recordings to be released on the eve of their new partnership, a DVD of a scintillating French programme. Dutilleux, Delage and Ravel make for a delectable trio. And it sent me back to a recording of two Ravel pieces that I adore: L’Enfant et les sortilèges and Ma mere l’Oye.
I first got to know Mother Goose at the piano, but how wonderful to hear it in full colour, particularly with the luscious tone of the Berlin Philharmonic strings.
This account is full of fairytale magic: the contrabassoon Beast is deliciously growly, the clarinet Beauty dances gracefully, while the Empress of the Pagodas sparkles.
Rattle first conducted the one-act opera l’enfant et les sortilèges when he was 19, and his affection for the piece shines through. The cast is not too shabby either: Magdalena Kožená, Nathalie Stutzmann, Sophie Koch, Jose van Dam, Francois Le Roux and Jean-Paul Fouchecourt revel in Ravel’s vision of childhood.
Words by: Rebecca Franks
Ambrosian Singers, Philharmonia Orchestra/Simon Rattle
EMI ASD 4047
When I was at junior school I heard Holst’s ‘Mars’ on the car radio and asked my parents what it was. They bought me an EMI LP of The Planets with its stunning NASA image of Saturn on the cover. This 1981 performance by the Philharmonia Orchestra was conducted by Simon Rattle. I remember the picture of the conductor with his big hair.
Whenever I hear the ominous 5/4 rhythm of ‘Mars’, I think back to this record and the intense listening experience, as it builds up to its thundering ffff – almost like the horror of a battlefield. I was told to listen out for the tenor tuba which Holst had imported from a military band.
The record also introduced me to the other wonderful Planets, including the well-known tunes of ‘Jupiter’, the bleak chimes of ‘Saturn’ and the ethereal wordless singing of ‘Neptune’.
Words by: Neil McKim
Schumann: Das Paradies und die Peri
Sally Matthews, Mark Padmore, Kate Royal, Bernarda Fink, Andrew Staples, Florian Boesch; London Symphony Chorus/Simon Halsey; London Symphony Orchestra/Simon Rattle
LSO Live LSO0782
One of the first discs that came into the office after I started at BBC Music Magazine was this brilliant recording – Simon Rattle’s first on the LSO Live label – of Schumann’s Das Paradies und die Peri. Though little-known today, in Schumann’s lifetime this strange mythological oratorio was seen as the most popular piece he ever wrote.
With Simon Rattle at the helm, this fantastic cast of top British singers weave a web of mystery which captured my imagination, and has continued to do so ever since.
Words by: Elinor Cooper
- Read BBC Music Magazine's review of this recording here
- Simon Rattle conducts the London Symphony Orchestra in Das Paradies und die Peri at the 2023 BBC Proms
Elinor Cooper is a singer and choral conductor working in South West England. She holds an MMus in choral conducting from the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama and is now the music director of Bristol Singers, Collegium Singers, UWE Singers and assistant conductor of Bristol Youth Choir. She is the former editorial assistant of BBC Music Magazine.