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Symphony No.9 in D major

Berlin Sinfonie-Orchester/Kurt Sanderling
(Recording made in 1979)
BERLIN CLASSICS 0094412BC 2 CDs [81.00]
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Kurt Sanderling seems to make a speciality out of late Mahler. I reviewed his Berlin Classics recordings of "Das Lied Von Der Erde" (0094022BC) and the Deryck Cooke version of the Tenth Symphony (0094422BC) here recently. Both are excellent. Now here is a Ninth Symphony from the same place and period. In this instance, however, there have been two other recordings of this work by Sanderling to tempt the buyer. One on Erato with the Philharmonia Orchestra and one on the old BBC Radio Classics label from a July 1982 broadcast recording in Manchester with the BBC Philharmonic (15656 91562). Even though the latter is currently out of the catalogue I mentioned it in my survey of Ninth Symphony recordings because I rate it so highly, especially over the Erato, and hope to see it reissued. How does this Berlin recording compare with it?

The first movement finds Sanderling as ever the serious-minded Mahlerian, here even more sober than usual. In the first movement he maintains a well-judged tempo and makes sure every detail is clear as he unfolds the Development section particularly, with no undue marking of events or dramatic underlining. The passage marked Leidenschaftlich at 211-266 also brings string playing of the highest order from the Berlin players and then in the passage immediately after this notice Sanderling's stress on the music's darker colours which, as the movement unfolds, seems to be his principal tone of voice. The great climax crowned by the trombone statement of the opening motive (314-318) is superbly "placed" though it doesn't overwhelm quite as much as it surely must and does in Sanderling's deleted BBC Philharmonic recording. Nevertheless, the funeral march following it emerges memorably and movingly. Then the Recapitulation is astringent in its delivery and in keeping with Sanderling's stoic character, never pulling the heartstrings like some and suggesting that this performance might not be to the taste of those who like their Mahler to move them greatly. In Manchester I feel that Sanderling made much more of the contrasts in the movement, more of the drama and so involved the listener to a greater extent and also in a very slightly quicker overall tempo which made a great difference.

I like very much the tough opening to the second movement. The strings dig into their music from the start and, as I say so often, it is surprising the number of recordings you hear of this that seem lightweight. This is marked an "unhurried" Landler, played as such and there is real wit from Sanderling and his players. You can always tell when a conductor is under the skin of this movement when you can then hear that he has recognised the three different tempi Mahler asks for. Tempo II is a waltz and Tempi III a slower one and there is no mistaking the difference between them in this recording. Though not so much that the movement shows any sign of coming apart at the seams. Right through, Sanderling's ear for detail never deserts him and so Mahler's wonderful contrapuntal writing is done full justice. Towards the end the influence Mahler cast upon Shostakovich can be heard too, which is hardly surprising with this conductor on the podium. A feeling continued in the third movement "Rondo Burleske" where both tempo judgement and attention to detail seem well nigh perfect. The central interlude illustrates Sanderling's tempo judgement very well in that there is no relaxation of the tension inherent in the movement but we can also appreciate the lyricism and heart's ease Mahler is aiming for. When the main material resumes it is as if it has been hiding in the shadows all the time. However, again the Manchester recording is more memorable in that the unhinged quality of Mahler's vision in this movement is brought out to a greater extent and that is so important. In Berlin it is as if Sanderling is holding something back in that area.

Many Mahlerites will find the last movement rather disappointing and I am one of them. Here virtues I have pointed out in the performance so far now start to work against Sanderling. The clarity of detail that I called attention to now seems rather inappropriate even though there is no denying they make for consistency with the rest of the performance. Where in the first movement we had stoicism here we have coolness and an emotional detachment that goes too far and robs the movement of feeling. I was in no way moved by music that really should leave the listener changed. This is not the feeling I took away from the Manchester recording that is a crucial few degrees more committed, more eloquent. In the final analysis I'm convinced that this Berlin Classics recording, fine though it is, is therefore not its equal. It is interesting that both were originally made in studios for radio broadcasting and yet the Manchester recording sounds as if it is a "live" performance. Longer takes were used, perhaps. It certainly has a greater degree of volatility and appropriate drama right through that makes it special and again leads me to hope it might one day be reissued by BBC Legends as better representing Sanderling's view of this symphony. Three minutes shorter in duration, perhaps accounting for some of the keener drama, it also fitted on to one CD and so would work out cheaper to buy as this Berlin recording is just too long and needs two discs.

The sound for this Berlin recording is close-balanced with the woodwinds especially clear. The BBC Manchester recording was bigger and more atmospheric though the strings tended to sound a little smaller-scale at times whereas in Berlin they are richer and more immediate. I do hope there are more Mahler recordings by Sanderling available to Berlin Classics, though. The livery on the releases of both this and the Tenth Symphony suggest two issues in a complete cycle but no mention is made in the liner notes whether this is the case. Kurt Sanderling is a great conductor and what Mahler he has given us is always well worth hearing.

A fine and intelligent reading with many virtues, as you would expect, but just short of the real greatness we know Sanderling to be capable of in this work.

Tony Duggan

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