Even after all the other great symphonies and cycles you’ve done, is Beethoven still a challenge?
It really is. And not just because conductors are simple people who only ever want to conduct Wagner’s Ring or record a Beethoven cycle. There is the sense this is an event because of all the music that comes after it: this is like going back to the source of everything. For so many members of the orchestra, Beethoven was one of the first composers they loved. Somehow it is music that keeps you honest. You look at yourself reflected in the Beethoven mirror and there aren’t many places to hide. It shows you where you are.
Do you have to find a balance between treating the symphonies individually and as part of a cycle?
There’s always a journey from the First Symphony, which could be Haydn on steroids, to the Ninth, which points to Bruckner and Mahler. One of Beethoven’s favourite things was the idea that ‘opposites can also be true’. The Fifth and Sixth are as different as can be and were written almost in response to each other. Sometimes the way we play and rehearse the symphonies reflects that. We often play the Seventh and Fourth together, and have to shake ourselves after the Seventh to remember that the Fourth is not an ecstactic, violent, dangerous thing – it’s much more intimate. So in some ways you have to find a different style for each piece.
You recorded a Beethoven cycle with the Vienna Philharmonic in 2002. What different qualities do these two orchestras bring?
It’s very hard to say, but the Vienna Philharmonic is an opera orchestra, so there’s something to do with refinement and giving way to other people, while the Berlin Philharmonic simply goes for it and burns into everybody’s consciousness. As I’ve got older, I try to do less with the surface of the music, to fiddle around with it less. I’ve found myself extremely inspired by Sir Charles Mackerras’s last cycle, not just his electricity but also the sheer directness of utterance, which seemed to me so true to Beethoven.
This interview first appeared in the July 2016 issue, when Sir Simon Rattle's recording of all of Beethoven's symphonies was Recording of the Month. Click here to read the review.