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Hey, Sir DJ: Simon Rattle Picks Favorites From A 30-Year Recording Career

The Beatles aren't the only shaggy-haired musicians with a decades-long attachment to EMI. The venerable label is celebrating 30 years with conductor Sir Simon Rattle, music director of theBerlin Philharmonic.

Reissues from Sir Simon's vast catalog (Schoenberg, Webern, Beethoven, Berg) accompany his sparkling new recording of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker ballet, which you can hear in its entirety on our classical pages.

I called Rattle at his office at Berlin's Philharmonie and asked him to pick five of his own favorites from his three-decade stint.

"I'd rather pick other people's records," Rattle admitted. In his spare time, he says, he barely has time to listen to classical music, much less his own recordings.

"I'd be much more likely to watch the latest Tarantino movie than to listen to a Mahler symphony," he said.

Rattle signed with EMI in 1980 when he was all of 25 years old and newly installed as the music director of a British regional ensemble, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Over a period of 18 years, he molded the players into one of the more agile and important orchestras on the scene.

Rattle took over the Berlin Philharmonic in 1999. Below is a list of Rattle's favorites, including comments from the conductor himself.

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Simon Rattle Plays DJ: 30-Years Of EMI Recordings

Jean Sibelius: Oceanides (rec. 1984)

"The Oceanides (Aallottaret), tone poem for orchestra, Op. 73"

I wanted to include some Sibelius with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. It was because of Sibelius that EMI asked us to record. EMI came to me and said, "We would like to do this with your orchestra. We feel that this will be the future." It was a huge surprise and an honor for us.  So these recordings [of Sibelius' music] were very early on in our time and they are very close to my heart.  The tone poem the Oceanides is one of my personal favorites. It is still very rarely played and this recording still stands up very well, after all this time.

Thomas Ades: Asyla (excerpt) (City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, rec. 1998)

"Asyla, for orchestra, Op. 17 [IV]"

The grapevine in England is an extraordinary thing. When there is a really brilliant young composer or soloist, we all hear about it. And I started hearing about Tom Ades when he was 18. We took a real risk on him, and I said let's give him a carte blanche, to write what he wants for us. And we were stunned when Asyla turned out. I looked at the score and I said, "Tom, I really don't think this will work," and he said, "just try it." And we tried it and everything worked. The more we played it the more extraordinary it appeared. It's still an enormously demanding score for any orchestra. There was also the thrill of us being involved on the ground floor with a piece like that. You felt this is a major new voice in classical music.

Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 10 - "Purgatorio" (excerpt) (Berlin Philharmonic, rec. 1999)

"Symphony No. 10 in F sharp major (realization by Deryck Cooke)"

The Mahler 10th was recorded just after the orchestra decided they wanted me as conductor. The piece is as difficult as it gets. Because of its unfinished nature, you have to do more to it than to a normal Mahler symphony. There aren't gaps, but you have to use your imagination, in the way you do with those Michelangelo sculptures that he didn't finish, which are still coming out of the blocks of stone. I remember those concerts very vividly, and the feeling of what it was like on the start of this journey. Having fallen in love with the Mahler 10th as a teenager -- feeling it was a black sheep for people for many years -- I was very happy to champion it. And I realize by now I must have conducted nearly 100 performances of it.

Joseph Haydn: Symphony No. 90 - Finale (Berlin Philharmonic, rec. 2007)

Some of my favorite music in the world is Haydn. This group of Symphonies, from Nos. 88 to 92, are masterpieces which maybe aren't played as often as they should be. The finale of No. 90 in C has one of the only musical jokes that still works after 200 years, which is that the piece ends twice in the wrong place and always catches the audience. We ended up making two versions: one, a silent version so people didn't have to hear the audience reacting all the time, and one, a version from the live concert, which I much prefer. The music is astonishing on its own, but part of what Haydn was writing was the audience's reaction. And it's wonderful, 200 years later, to hear people realizing they've been caught not once, but twice, and laughing about it.

Johannes Brahms: Symphony No. 3 - "Poco Allegretto" (Berlin Philharmonic, rec. 2008)

"Symphony No. 3 in F major, Op. 90 [3. Poco allegretto]"

Something that was very important to us, when we recorded all of the Brahms Symphonies, was that this is what the orchestra was set up to do. In the second year of its existence, it played the premiere of the Brahms Symphony No. 3. The third movement is maybe the greatest Bonjour Tristesse music of all time. The Third Symphony is maybe the "musicians' symphony" of all of them. It can be the most allusive, but I find it the most profoundly affecting.

Simon Rattle
Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.