Brilliant Classics are building a bargain basement
boxed set catalogue at a very rapid rate. Their Bach and Mozart series
have, in general, been strongly welcomed ... where they have received
any attention at all. The traditional major classical review magazines
still tend to walk pharisaically on the other side of the street where
Brilliant and Royal are concerned yet the bargain boxed set has attained
ikonic status with purchasers for its convenience, its economy and its
inclusiveness. The other thing about these sets is that they can be
seen in outlets such as supermarkets, cross-channel ferry shops and
even office supply warehouses evangelising a public beyond the predictable
range of classical collectors.
The first (small) point is that this is not entirely
Sanderling and the BSO. For some reason Brilliant have chopped, changed
and reallocated what was originally a four CD set into five. When Berlin
Classics (BC) issued 0020592BC in 1996 the set contained the seven symphonies
plus Night Ride, Finlandia and En Saga. Perhaps
the licence from EDEL (who own the BC label) prevented a straight facsimile.
What has emerged under Brilliant colours is a 5CD set with CDs 2 and
3 exactly as the counterpart CDs on the Edel set. CD1 has the First
Symphony alone, CD4 has just symphonies 6 and 7 and CD 5 has the tone
poems with the addition of Valse Triste and an orphan Swan
in the shape of a post-Bournemouth Berlin Radio recording by Berglund.
It would have been more logical to keep the original couplings and to
add the Valse Triste to CD 3 bringing it to 74.34. However that
is a trivial point and in its place there is the convenience of having
all the Sanderling tone poems in the set grouped on one disc.
The five discs, each with its own colour illustration,
are housed in a light card slipcase. The case is of a similar quality
to that of the Berlin Classics set. The BC set sported a photograph
of a lake-dotted pine tree landscape and this was used as a standard
on each disc and on the slipcase.
As I remarked a couple of years back when reviewing
the BC set, the Sanderling Seven seem to have had little or no coverage
in record review magazines. I recall seeing a passing (and, I think,
approving) reference to the set in a Gramophone overview of Sibelius
cycles. Perhaps this goes, in Sanderling’s case, with the recordings
having been a product of East Germany in the days before Unification.
Sanderling’s Nordic credentials are clear enough. Born
in 1912 and trained in Berlin, he emigrated to Russia in 1936. There
he conducted the Moscow Radio Orchestra and then the Kharkov Phil. In
1942 he was appointed joint permanent conductor of the Leningrad PO
with Mravinsky. Sanderling left Leningrad in 1960 (having recorded Sibelius
2 and 5 with the Philharmonic for Melodiya) for a long association with
the Berlin SO. This only ended in 1977. He also worked with the Dresden
Staatskapelle. His Mahler, Shostakovich and Sibelius are legendary.
Berlin Classics have many of his recordings in their catalogue and have
just issued a 16CD boxed set: 'Kurt Sanderling: Legendary recordings'
The First Symphony resounds with mordant string
surges, Nutcracker-like enchantment, some stunning brass playing
and a sense of the easily unrolling metronomic chiff-chaff of the strings
and woodwind (e.g. 10.50 I). The pizzicati are punched out with satisfying
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
Sanderling’s Sibelius cycle is distinguished by attention
to detail. The Second Symphony feels lovingly moulded and crafted
with tangible control of the pizzicato (I 2.21) and finely-lathed tension
in the second movement. There is a slight and very welcome hint of vintage
Russian vibrato in the French horns - a ripeness that suits very well
in this repertoire. In the finale the vaunting trumpets have a very
human self-questioning edge. These fine features carry over into the
final pages but are undermined by a sense of fatigue.
The Third Symphony (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 (still my favourites
among the cycle); a cold flame but still a flame. Sanderling is warmly
in sympathy with these works catching the long march and trudge of the
first movement of No. 3 (Leningrad’s snow still on Sanderling’s boots?)
with a sharply accented and chiselled approach.
The Fourth Symphony is projected with throatily
clipped style. The recording is natural - decidedly unglamorous and
very powerful. The work is taken rather steadily but this seems to suit
the piece. This 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 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 Sixth Symphony has a coolly unfolding flute
contribution and cocooned strings (I), the motoric propulsion of the
music utterly dispels the languor that rather saps the energy at the
end of the First Symphony. 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 theatre music.
The Seventh Symphony is the least successful
of the set. In it Sanderling’s propensity for caressing detail robs
the music of its essential tension. All in all, and in total contrast
to his Leningrad partner (Mravinsky) in this work, there is little sense
of steely control or of sufficient incitement to trombone oratory -
a quality the importance of which has recently been further emphasised
for me by hearing the bardic emphasis given to that instrument in two
Melodiya LP recordings directed by Gennadi Rozhdestvensky in the 1950s
and the 1970s.
The stereo competition is fierce. The Naxos Petri Sakari
(DDD) White Box set looks to be very promising and I have a very high
regard for Berglund’s Royal Classics set with the Bournemouth SO (ADD).
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 if you can find one now that Beulah has closed
down. The recommendable stereo choice is quite wide. The Naxos set from
Petri Sakari, Berglund (the Bournemouth years) on Royal Classics, Berglund
(DDD - Helsinki plus the rosetted Bournemouth Kullervo) again
on EMI and the Vänskä/Lahti SO set on BIS (DDD). All are worthwhile
though none are consistently wonderful. The Berglund sets are good and
very inexpensive choices and I am torn between recommending the eight
CD box formed around the Helsinki orchestra digital sessions of the
1980s and the Bournemouth volume from Royal Classics.
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 over or elide. 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 force it unnaturally. Tension is revealed rather than imposed.
This set is in many ways a most agreeable addition to the library. Conductor,
orchestra and recording all lend themselves to longer-term listening
rather than immediate emotional returns and short-term neon high-drama.
We turn now to disc 5. Finlandia is brash
and despite savagely barking brass and magnificent horns (3.35) it is
not a patch on the arterial throb and the dark hues of the Barbirolli
version with the Hallé on EMI or for that matter on Horst Stein's
1970s Decca version with the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande. I have
revised my views over the last two years; I thought very highly of this
Finlandia when first hearing it in 1998. The BSO Valse
Triste is new to me, being an absentee from the Berlin Classics
box and Sanderling manages this very well indeed - lilting and regretful
- just as it should be. Nightride shows what a coach of
orchestras Sanderling was with pin-point precision and accurate ensemble.
Rhythm and dynamics are just so. The Berglund Swan is
recorded in intimidating proximity and the recording cannot handle the
intense waves of string sound. The distortion is noticeable as is some
tape-ruckle damage at 2.11. En Saga’s finely etched wavelets
at the start are done with steely precision and it roars and clamours
(with some slight over-saturation) just as well as it whispers and shimmers.
It is a pity that the ambience is clipped too close to the end of the
piece. The fall into digital silence is too precipitate; a few seconds
of analogue hiss would have helped sustain the glimmering magic. A Sanderling
Pohjola's Daughter would have been worth having as would an Oceanides
and Lemminkainen Legends but these were never made (or were
they?). The mesmeric string ostinati superbly look forward to Night
Ride and Sunrise. Sanderling’s account of the latter is successful:
buzzing with blade-sharp definition and with an impressive depth of
recording. Sanderling stands here as the conjurer of clouds and enchanter
I have made spot comparisons between the Berlin Classics
and Brilliant sets. In audio terms there is nothing to choose between
them. Both evince magnetic tape origins heard in the bed of light hiss
apparent and these recordings benefit from being played at high volume.
Berlin Classics now use NoNoise technology but the Sibelius set predates
the adoption of this technique. It looks as if Brilliant have taken
from EDEL exact digital copies with no further attempt to tinker. Well
and good. The Brilliant liner-notes are a straight copy of the Berlin
Classics originals by Bernhart Lenort (4/5 and 6/7) and Christiane Krautscheid
(1, 2/3 and the tone poems). Even the write-up on Sanderling is exactly
as the Berlin Classics edition up to date only as far as 1988. The only
difference is that Brilliant's notes are in English only. The more detailed
discographical information on the BC set has not been transferred onto
the Brilliant Classics set.
Thanks are due to Brilliant for giving these recordings
(now a quarter century old) a new lease of life and for preserving the
liner notes from the original issue.