Sir Simon Rattle to pass on baton after 16 years with Berlin Philharmonic

British conductor announces he intends to leave German orchestra in five years' time

Sir Simon Rattle has announced he is to leave the Berlin Philharmonic when his contract as chief conductor expires in five years' time.

The announcement ends years of speculation about his future with the orchestra, which he joined to great fanfare in 2002, and will lead to much speculation as to what Britain's most successful cultural export plans to do next.

It is the beginning of the end of a relationship that has earned Rattle almost pop-star status in the German capital. Orchestra members expressed their regret at the decision, and spoke of the "great mutual sympathy" between the conductor and his musicians.

Rattle was quick to quash any suggestion – particularly from the Berlin press, which has often been keen to claim a strained relationship between conductor and orchestra – that their co-operation had in any way soured, saying instead that it would soon be time for a younger person to take up the baton.

"In 2018 I will have been with the orchestra for 16 years," he said. "Before this I was chief conductor in Birmingham for 18 years. In 2018 I will be nearly 64 years old. As a Liverpool boy, it is impossible not to think of the Beatles' question: will you still need me … when I'm 64? And I am sure that then it will be time for somebody else to take on the magnificent challenge that is the Berliner Philharmoniker."

Rattle came to Berlin after a successful run as conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, which he rescued from provincial obscurity and helped earn a place on the international stage.

Born in Liverpool in 1955, Rattle developed an interest in conducting at an early age. He studied at the Royal Academy of Music and began his career as assistant conductor of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra at the tender age of 19, first conducting at the Proms when he was 21.

He joined the Birmingham orchestra in 1980, and in 1999 he was elected as a successor to Claudio Abbado in Berlin – despite initial speculation that several musicians might have preferred Daniel Barenboim.

During his time in Germany he has won particular accolades for introducing more contemporary music to the repertoire, and for his work with young people and socially deprived children. He persuaded the orchestra to embrace the system of outreach programmes he had developed in the UK, which had been virtually unknown in Germany and which have since caught on. He secured his musicians' loyalty after ensuring fair pay for all and receiving written assurance from Berlin politicians that his orchestra would enjoy artistic independence.

Before his departure for Berlin in 2002 he drew comparison between what he saw as Britain's poor appreciation of culture and Germany's reverence for it, angering some artists in Britain. Since then he has been cautious about making further such comparisons.

He also made headlines when his marriage to an American author broke up after he started a relationship with the Czech mezzo soprano Magdalena Kozena. The couple married in 2008 and live in Berlin with their two sons.

Rattle, who conducted the London Symphony Orchestra – plus Mr Bean on the keyboard – at the opening ceremony of last year's Olympics, said he hoped the Berlin Philharmonic would now have sufficient time to start looking for a successor. Classical music observers began speculating about who the candidates might be, and what Rattle's future might hold.

The Philharmonic's chairmen, Peter Riegelbauer and Stefan Dohr, who are also musicians in the orchestra, said in a statement: "We regret Simon Rattle's decision … [but] at the same time we respect his personal decision. Our collaboration with him is characterised by great mutual sympathy and a respectful artistic and human relationship."

Rattle said he loved the orchestra and his decision had not been easy. "Therefore I wanted to tell them my decision as early as possible. I deeply hope that this will give them enough time to start new plans," he said. "I look forward with great pleasure to our next five years together and hopefully many years afterwards. I am thankful for the time that we have spent together so far."


Kate Connolly in Berlin

The GuardianTramp

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