In the midst of listening
to these discs I received an unexpected
request from the Editor to review
a set of recordings by Dimitri Mitropoulos,
which included a blazing, live performance
of this same symphony. It was, therefore,
with a little trepidation that I returned
to this Sanderling account, wondering
if Mitropoulos had spoiled me for any
other interpretations in the short term.
I need not have worried.
There are three compelling
reasons why I think you should consider
adding this recording to your collection.
In the first place, Thomas Sanderling
delivers a carefully considered, accurate
and very involving reading of the score.
Secondly, he obtains splendid playing
from the St. Petersburg Philharmonic.
Thirdly, the performance is captured
in stunningly realistic and clear sound.
To some ears the sound may seem a bit
bright and up-front but to me it served,
together with the skills of the musicians
involved, to convey marvelously the
vivid primary colours of Mahlerís orchestration.
The balance and realism are such that
the copious, complex strands of Mahlerís
scoring here emerge as clearly, yet
musically, as I can recall hearing.
The percussion is especially well served,
without dominating. For example, the
way that quiet strokes on the tam-tam
are caught is thrilling.
Sanderling may not
quite sweep the listener off his or
her feet in the way that Mitropoulos
does but his is still a strongly projected
and very committed interpretation, one
that is certainly not short on power
and drive. He observes the copious markings
in Mahlerís score and on the very few
occasions that I noticed an unmarked
change of tempo or dynamic this seemed
completely valid in context and justified
by the conviction of the performance.
Though markings are faithfully observed
this is no mere exercise in pedantry.
Rather, it seems to me that Sanderling
has come to the correct conclusion that
in Mahler, as in Elgar, everything necessary
for a first rate, convincing performance
has been written into the score.
In his authoritative
survey of recorded versions of this
symphony my colleague, Tony Duggan has
described this recording enthusiastically
and in some detail. I agree with much
that he says. For instance, before reading
his comments Iíd written "alpine
sounds" in my listening notes in
respect of the first interlude with
cowbells in the first movement. I do
beg to differ slightly with him, however,
in respect of the tempo adopted for
the main march material in this movement.
Tony writes that Sanderling is "on
the slower, grimmer end of the tempo
scale" albeit not as slow as Barbirolli
is. In fact, in my listening notes Iíve
written "quite a brisk pace, energetic
but not too hectic." Sanderlingís
speed is not rushed, as is the case
with Bernstein, and seems pretty near
ideal (though I relish the broader Barbirolli
view as an alternative). The "Alma"
theme soars and swoops beautifully.
One of the passages that I most admire
in this performance is the atmospheric
episode between cues 22 to 25 in the
score (13í03" to 15í16").
These bars sound absolutely splendid
here, the result of sensitive, refined
playing and conducting. Itís quite wonderful.
Thereís an abundance
of really acute, pointed playing in
the scherzo. A good deal of vehemence
comes through in the performance but
itís properly controlled. That, I think,
is because, once again, Sanderling gets
his players to play whatís in the score.
Observance of Mahlerís markings and
trust in the composer leads to sharply
characterized music making.
The andante begins
at an easeful, flowing tempo that I
find wholly appropriate and convincing.
Innocence is conveyed. Once again the
playing is very sensitive and tonally
refined and there are some gorgeous
wind solos to savour along the way.
The strings are rich and full. Even
more, perhaps, than was the case in
some of the more relaxed moments in
the first movement the music seems to
exude a clear alpine air, at least for
the first five minutes or so. As the
emotional tension rises Sanderling is
careful never to allow excess and I
concur with Tony Dugganís verdict that
"classical detachment [is maintained]
by not giving in to sentimentality."
Any performance of
this symphony stands or falls by the
towering finale. Sanderlingís is a tremendously
successful traversal, I think. Heís
aided enormously by the virtuosity of
both the orchestral musicians and, yes,
of the engineers. Thereís no artificial
spotlighting of instruments but conductor
and engineers clarify Mahlerís hugely
complex textures to an extraordinary
degree. Sadly the hammer blows are not
especially telling. What is telling,
however, is the skill with which Sanderling
prepares each of them, screwing up the
tension in just the right way so that
the blows are inevitable, but still
highly dramatic, moments of release.
Because the hammer blows are not as
distinctive as they might be itís a
little difficult to be sure but I donít
think the controversial third hammer
blow at cue 164 (27í17") is made.
Amid such a plethora of fine playing
itís invidious to single out a particular
contribution but in this movement the
horn section, splendid throughout the
whole performance, are especially magnificent.
At the very end they and their colleagues
in the trombone section combine to play
the doom-laden coda superbly.
This is a very fine
version indeed. In fact itís one of
the very best on the market, I think.
I rate the versions by Barbirolli and
Rattle very highly. I also esteem Klaus
Tennstedtís highly emotional, black
version more highly than does Tony Duggan.
And then thereís MitropoulosÖ! However,
this Sanderling recording is one that
all Mahlerians should try to hear. Itís
superbly recorded, played and conducted
and it will grace any collection. In
the liner notes, written some years
ago, we are told that Sanderling had
begun to record the Mahler symphonies
with this orchestra and for this label.
However, when I checked on the RS website,
I couldnít see any more such recordings,
which is a pity, I think. On the evidence
of this recording the son of the great
Kurt Sanderling is, like his father,
a considerable conductor. I should like
to hear him in more Mahler but for now
this excellent recording will do to
be going on with.
Duggan's comparative review of Mahler's