Limelight editor Francis Merson speaks to Sir Simon Rattle about his past, present and future with the Berlin Philharmonic.

On September 7, 2002, Sir Simon Rattle took up the baton as principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, confirming a fact we had all known, but never uttered – here was a conductor capable of making history. The chieftains of the Berlin Phil have an unerring habit of being geniuses, and the names of Rattle’s predecessors read like an honour roll of great maestros. Hans von Bülow, Wilhelm Furtwangler, Herbert von Karajan, Sergiu Celibidache, Claudio Abbado… For Rattle is this a legacy to be proud of – or a hard act to follow? We caught up with Sir Simon at the beginning of his eighth season with the orchestra, after he had just extended his contract until 2018.

A conductor of your stature could pretty much have his pick of orchestras. Why did you choose to continue with the Berlin Philharmonic?

Once you catch the virus with this orchestra, it can be tough to go other places. There is something very special about the Berlin Phil, about the way they play. There is an almost burning commitment, which is very, very unusual. You have to do many things with the orchestra but, by God, you don’t have to encourage them to come into work. Everybody wants to play. That is a very, very rare quality. It makes every concert feel like it’s an adventure. There’s no one who isn’t going to play as if it’s the last concert in their life. That’s an extraordinary basis to have for working.

So if you don’t have to arouse the orchestra’s enthusiasm, what do you have to work on?

Well, there are many, many stars in this orchestra, pulling in many different directions and you have to convince them all to go the same way. But when we do achieve that it’s an extraordinary thing. They provide you with a sound that seems to come from the bowels of the Earth. It’s always from the bottom up. It’s really interesting for me, coming from a culture of British orchestral playing, where the sound often comes from the top down.

You mentioned at the beginning of your time with the Berlin Philharmonic that the orchestra has difficulty adapting to non-German music.

We’ve actually worked on that a lot. I think the orchestra will always feel very at home with Russian music, but French music is something they had done less, and which they begged me to do more of. They wanted to do more Mozart and Haydn, more French music and more contemporary music. We have also started doing a lot more Bach, which has been a wonderful experience for us. It’s like different coloured plumage on the same wonderful bird. And of course the more colours they have in Debussy the more colours they can bring back to Brahms as well.

I remember a former chief conductor of the Sydney Symphony talking about being utterly terrified of conducting the Berlin Philharmonic.

I think that is quite a healthy reaction to have. You jump into the lion’s cage with a little bit of fear. I think that’s smart. By the nature of how the players are and how self-possessed they are, it’s never going to be an easy group. It has that written on the packet; one simply has to expect that. But there is a pay-off as well, thank God.

You will have spent 16 years in Berlin by 2018, a long tenure for a conductor by today’s standards. Before that, you spent 18 years in Birmingham. Is that a kind of question of principle, or was it an accident? Do you think a long tenure is a necessity if you want to get results with an orchestra?

It depends on what you want to do. If you really want to build a community, you need time. And it’s not only building an orchestral community, it’s building a place within the city. I always want to be in places for a long time. You also have to think of it as a marriage; you have to try to sort out what’s difficult as well. But if you move on very fast, you can move on before the real problems come up, or you can just choose not to deal with them. All the most wonderful string quartets have been together for a long time, and I think the string quartet is the template of how an orchestra ought to play. We are coming back to pieces now, at the beginning of the eighth season, that we’ve played a lot together, such as Brahms 2, and I notice something different every time.

You say it takes a while to build a community. How do you see the orchestra as part of the community in Berlin?

We’ve made, right from the start, a commitment to the idea of education of all areas. So simply not being the diva at the side of the city, but really going into the city. I mean the orchestra and the players are regularly going into schools, regularly going into other communities, to prisons ­– you name it, they’re doing it ­– and bringing the music to people and helping to encourage other people in their creativity. And so it means there is a wide constituency within the city now, where everybody knows the orchestra really quite well.

Is this something you established?

It wasn’t something they had done before. They felt that people should just come to us. But we also realised that we have to be evangelists, not just high priests, to try and spread this to as many different people – and different kinds of people – as possible.  Berlin is not a homogenised German city; it is a city with 200 different nationalities, which is a fantastic thing. And I think people deserve at least the chance to have orchestral music in their life. But to do that they have to know about it.

The Berlin Phil carries with it a huge amount of musical history, the lineage of conductors from Von Bülow through to Karajan and Abbado. Do you find that oppressive as the chief conductor?

It’s interesting. I thought it would be more oppressive, but what was extraordinary was that in Claudio Abbado’s time the orchestra had changed radically. I mean, he started the process of rejuvenation, not even by his own choice really, but because a lot of people had retired at the end of Karajan’s time. Karajan and the orchestra had been young together and grew old together. Now the huge majority of the orchestra haven’t played for Karajan; most of them have never even seen Karajan, and so that memory is psychic rather than real. We still play, when we play Brahms 2, for instance, from the old blue parts, but these were Furtwängler’s parts. So the tradition on the page goes back before Karajan, and you know, often I want them to reconnect with their traditions.

Do you find it hard to bear the constant comparisons with past conductors of the Berlin Phil?

No, not at all. They are all better conductors than I am. It’s just what it is. On the other hand, I am a very lucky man to be standing on their shoulders.

Reading your biography, what strikes me is how driven you have always been. At the age of 15 you put together a scratch orchestra for a charity event in a Liverpool Concert Hall. That’s not a normal thing for a 15-year-old to do.

Have you met any normal musicians? It’s a very interesting point: there was a film about the orchestra called Trip to Asia, in which members of the orchestra talked surprisingly honestly about themselves. What’s amazing is that everybody has this feeling that they are a strange duck, going back to childhood. Everyone was strange in their community, and now we have a community where all these strange people can come together and create something wonderful. But what I did certainly was unusual. In Liverpool it would have been more usual to form a soccer team.

I can understand the alienation of being a musician and feeling like an outsider, but what struck me as remarkable is your also having the self-assurance to go out and conduct an orchestra.

Well, me too. I can’t imagine who the person was who did that. I don’t know if I could persuade people now. But also when you are a teenager you do stuff because you don’t know how hard it is.

Have you ever had a crisis of confidence?

Of course. Is there any musician or artist that didn’t? Some of us cover it up better than others. I mean, absolutely, if I didn’t wake up every morning doubting myself I don’t think I would know I was myself.

But you must have noticed that you are consistently rated the greatest living conductor, or at least in the top four.

Good Lord! I can’t believe that. Look, there must be people who believe they are truly extraordinary in their field, but that must be a different way of existing from mine. I wake up each morning wondering how I managed without what I learnt last week. For me it seems to be an endless learning process. One of our greatest conductors, Bernard Haitink, who only seems to get better and better, said to me years ago, when I went to talk to him about this very subject,  “This just gets harder. Don’t expect it to get any easier. You find out more things, and yes it gets harder. I’ve done all kind of things but not particularly well, but you have to live with that and you have to do the best you can each time.” I would think Bernard’s philosophy is closest to mine in that way. He is, without doubt, one of the greatest conductors we have, but I don’t think he would believe it for one minute.

But you’re obviously doing something right. If you can attribute your success as a conductor to something, what would it be? What makes an excellent conductor?

I mean there are many qualities, but obviously having a sheer love for it is one of the main ones. I mean, orchestras want to know there is a love and a pleasure going into the music-making, as well as knowledge. Actually, a conductor is probably the worst person to ask what makes a good conductor. We all think it’s rather mysterious. Certainly, technique is not the most interesting thing about a conductor.

Then what is?

Some of the greatest conductors I have seen, such as Raphael Kubelik, had very, very little conducting technique. In fact, what he did made it harder for the orchestra to play. But the players so loved him, so wanted to play for him, and felt how the music burns within him, that they would get beyond his arms. One of my old teachers, Berthold Goldschmidt, who played in the Berlin Philharmonic in the 1920s and was Kleiber’s assistant for the first performances of Wozzeck, said, “If Mahler came back now to look at the conductors he would say, ‘How extraordinarily beautifully they would move their arms and how little music they seem to have in their heads.’” There was a time, of course, when all conductors were composers, and that probably made a difference also.