This set seems to have had little or no attention in record review magazines.
I recall seeing a passing (and, I think, approving) reference to it in a
Gramophone overview of Sibelius cycles. Apart from that nothing - rather
like the Abravanel and Watanabe cycles. Perhaps this goes in Sanderling's
case with the recordings having been a product of East Germany in the days
before Unification. It would have been so easy for this valuable quartet
of discs to be allowed to slip away but thanks are due to EDEL for keeping
it in the public eye.
Sanderling's Nordic credentials are certainly in order. He was born in 1912
and trained in Berlin. He emigrated to Russia in 1936 conducting in turn
the Moscow Radio Orchestra and then the Kharkov PO until in 1942 he was appointed
as joint permanent conductor of the Leningrad PO with Mravinsky. Sanderling
left Leningrad in 1960 for a long association with the Berlin SO (which only
ended in 1977) and the Dresden Staatskapelle.
Sanderling's Sibelius cycle is distinguished by an attention to point and
detail. The second symphony feels lovingly moulded and crafted with notable
control of the pizzicato (I 2.21) and finely lathed tension in the second
movement. There is a slight hint of vintage Russian vibrato in the French
horns - a ripeness that suits very well in this repertoire. In the finale
the heaven-vaunting trumpets have a very human self-questioning edge. These
fine features carry over into the final pages but with a suggestion of languor
that falls over the edge into tiredness.
The Third (1904-07) makes the transition from the Tchaikovskian romance of
the first two symphonies. A chill flame lights up the third and the sixth
symphonies (my favourites among the cycle). Sanderling is warmly in sympathy
with these works catching the long march and trudge of the first movement
(Leningrad's snow still on Sanderling's boots?) with a sharply accented and
chiselled approach. So a cold flame but it is still a flame. I noted a small
tape 'bump' at 1:27 in the first movement - a very small blemish in this
The first symphony resounds with mordant string surges,
Nutcracker-like enchantment, some stunning brass playing and the easily
unrolling chiff-chaff of the strings and woodwind (e.g. 10.50 I). The pizzicato
are punched out with the agreeable impact at the end of the first movement.
The hushed fast waves of sound underpinning the horns are done to perfection
in the second movement (3.30). In the third movement Sanderling demonstrates
that he knows how to knot and twist the tension (1.36). The finale is rather
too clipped and petulantly light-weight to be completely successful. More's
the pity as this is a performance that otherwise compares well with the
'market-leaders' including Colin Davis.
En Saga's etched string wavelets at the start are extremely well done and
the mesmeric string ostinati superbly look forward to Night Ride and
Sunrise. Sanderling's account of the latter is extremely successful:
buzzing with blade-sharp definition and with an impressive depth of recording.
Sanderling stands here as the conjurer of clouds and enchanter of winds.
In Finlandia bombast is conquered with some savagely barking brass
and at 3.35 the horns are simply magnificent.
The Sixth Symphony has a coolly unfolding flute contribution and cocooned
strings (I), the motoric propulsion of the strings utterly banishing any
languor. In the finale Sanderling and Sibelius conjure great reserves of
detail and at the same time catch the spirit of remote village churches and
crudely fervent hymn-singing. The second movement, more than ever in this
recording, seems to have much in common with the incidental music.
The Seventh Symphony is the least successful of the set. In it Sanderling's
propensity for caressing detail undermines the tension. All in all, and in
total contrast to his Leningrad partner (Mravinsky) in this work, there is
little sense of steely or adamantine control.
The fourth symphony is projected with throatily clipped style. The recording
is natural - decidedly unglamorous. It is taken rather steadily but this
seems to work well. This is not the equal of Colin Davis's Boston set (Philips)
but it is an estimable recording which will consistently please. Many corners
and crests emerge with satisfying eminence and clarity. The finale is very
good indeed with the studied faltering of the cello and violin solo statements
striding out. There is also, about the work, a gruff volcanic romance quite
unlike the Karajan DG performance through which I grew to know this symphony.
Sanderling and his orchestra are excellent at these rock-steady ostinati
and this foundation pays off time and again.
The fifth symphony is, for Sanderling, typically natural in approach and
sound. 'New' details float out and upwards all the time, for example the
bassoon solo in I at 7.09. This is very special indeed. Sanderling is in
touch with the hymn-like aspects of the second movement and the wintry serenade
work of the woodwind is allowed to register clearly. The strings seem to
emphasise the affinity of the writing with Tchaikovsky's String Serenade.
Tension darts, hums, bubbles and streams (try 4.34 if you would like to sample
the ethereal and the tense hand-in-hand) through the finale. The epic horn
cradle-song, so well articulated, makes this an extremely satisfying performance.
The trilingual (German, English, French) notes give us the essentials.
The stereo competition is fierce. The emerging Naxos Petri Sakari set looks
to be very promising and I have a very high regard for Berglund's Royal Classics
set with the Bournemouth SO. The latter happens to be from the same vintage
as the Sanderling. In fairness the Berlin Classics set would not have been
my very first choice but I would feel privileged to have learnt and enjoyed
the symphonies through them. If you can tolerate mono then the
Beulah Collins set is well
worth your attention. I would refer readers to Gerald Fenech's
overview of the Sibelius symphonies
for a broader view.
How to characterise this set? Sanderling glories in detail. He can tend towards
a steadiness that occasionally decays the pulse and thrust of the music.
Often however his unglamorous approach brings out details that others gloss
and chamfer. He is not afraid to allow these Northern flowers and trees to
bloom at a natural pace. He is no stranger to drama but will not fabricate
it unnaturally. Tension is exposed rather than created. This set is in many
ways a most agreeable library staple and conductor, orchestra and recording
all lend themselves to long-term listening rather than immediate emotional
returns and short-term neon high-drama.