The great German conductor, Kurt Sanderling (b.1912) retired from
conducting in 2002. Among his many admirers is Sir Simon Rattle
so itís quite interesting that this live Sanderling recording
of Mahlerís last fully completed symphony should appear almost
contemporaneously with Rattleís superb new account (see review).
I had assumed that
this was the first time this recording had been issued, although
I was aware that Sanderling had made two commercial recordings
of the work, one in the late 1970s with the Berlin Symphony
Orchestra and one for Erato in the early 1990s with the Philharmonia.
It was only after Iíd finished listening to it and I searched
the web for catalogue details of those performances that I discovered
that this present traversal has been available before, on the
old BBC Radio Classics label. Moreover, in that original incarnation
it was praised by my colleague, Tony Duggan, in his survey of
recordings of the Ninth. I have not heard the aforementioned
Philharmonia performance, which is now deleted, but I see from
that Tony admired that recording less than this one with the
BBC Philharmonic. I was very pleased to find that Tony felt
as enthusiastic about this current version as I do though we
find different things in the performance.
Those who prefer
an emotionally charged approach to this work Ė and itís a valid
way to look at it Ė will probably be lukewarm about this performance.
At first hearing it sounds sober, even detached. But Mahlerís
Ninth is a profound work of art and it reveals itself in many
ways. For me, this Sanderling reading is objective, noble and
patient and, above all, itís a reading of great integrity. Thatís
a combination of qualities that brings its own rewards in this
work. In some ways, and especially in its integrity and determination
to let the music speak for itself, it reminds me of Giuliniís
fine, patrician reading with the Chicago Symphony on DG (see
The huge and complex
first movement begins gently, almost tentatively. Is it my imagination
or has Sanderling encouraged a hint of East European timbre
in the little horn motif ? (0:17) In the first couple of minutes
the music has a singing, bitter-sweet feel that I find very
attractive. From 2:03, however, thereís much more ardour yet
the first big climax (2:54) sounds noble rather than angst-laden.
One feature of this
movement, and indeed of the whole performance, is that Sanderling
and the BBC engineers achieve excellent balance within the orchestra.
The string lines are accorded their rightful position in the
sound spectrum and the brass and woodwind sections come over
clearly without excessive dominance. The percussion section
is nicely balanced Ė listen out for the tam-tam. The horns are
given a fair, but not excessive, degree of prominence but thatís
abundantly justified both by Mahlerís writing and by the splendid
playing of the BBC Philís horn section. Some may feel that the
harp is a bit too forward in the balance during the first movement
but the instrument is a crucial element in the scoring of this
movement and Iím delighted to hear it register so well.
As the first movement
unfolds Sanderling never wears his heart on his sleeve but I
donít feel he short changes the listener. The emotion is kept
in perspective in a thoroughly musical reading. In a word, the
performance is controlled. When the big moments arrive Sanderling
and his players have ample power but itís the more subtly scored
pages that really catch my ear, especially since the BBC Phil
members are playing out of their skins for their distinguished
guest conductor. When we reach the coda (23:07) the mood is
wistfully nostalgic as a very thoughtful and satisfying account
of this towering movement comes to a close.
Thereís a good lift
to the rhythms at the start of the second movement, which Sanderling
takes at a relatively brisk basic tempo. At times the music
sounds quite genial and the true mood of a lšndler is
well conveyed. Sanderling seems to relish Mahlerís sardonic
wit yet, once again, he refuses to overplay his hand. In his
hands the movement functions as a kind of interlude after the
weightier matters of the preceding movement and I welcome this.
has genuine bite and snarl as it opens. The music is taken at
a fairly measured pace and this gives it proper weight. The
BBC wind and brass sections excel. At 6:20 the nostalgic passage
that prefigures the finale features a shining trumpet solo.
Sanderling doesnít milk these pages as some conductors do and
heís convincing, presenting the music in a straightforward manner.
That means, for example, that when the perky little interjections
by the clarinet start to take us back to the Rondo itself (8:45)
those little figures sound more than ever like Till Eulenspiegel
thumbing his nose at us. The final fling of the Rondo material
is suitably exciting but as ever Sanderling keeps a firm hand
on the tiller.
And so to the finale.
By now one is not surprised to find the conductor taking a measured
view and employing a degree of restraint. That said, thereís
no coolness in the opening paragraphs, where the strings play
marvellously for him. Sanderling seems to see the music in long
spans and the music making, while controlled, has a fine sense
of line and is not lacking in intensity Ė but the intensity
is properly channelled. The climax (14:52) is magnificent and
all the more powerful because Sanderling hasnít peaked too soon.
In the passage immediately following that climax the horns,
splendid throughout the whole performance, ring out ripely.
The last four or five minutes of music have a wonderful air
of dignified resignation. As the last few pages unfold, with
the music dying away on an ever-thinning thread of sound I wondered
if the BBC Philharmonic string players have ever played so quietly
or with such concentration.
This is a performance
of great integrity and musicality. I donít think Sanderling
ever conducted more than a handful of Mahler works but this
recording suggests very powerfully that he was totally at home
with the idiom. A reading such as this can only have been the
result of extensive study of the score and reflection about
the music. Iím glad to find that he doesnít seek to ring out
the last drop of ďmeaningĒ or emotion from the symphony. When
I want that approach there are other conductors to whom I can
turn but Sanderling is very satisfying. His direct and unpretentious
way with the score presents the music without frills and, especially,
without an undue imposition of his own personality Ė though
thatís not to say that the reading lacks character, for it doesnít.
It only remains
to say that the BBC Philharmonic plays splendidly for Sanderling,
as you may have gathered already from my comments. Furthermore,
the analogue recording is excellent, being both full and clear.
At the last count
I had sixteen other recordings of the Mahler Ninth in my collection.
But as itís one of the supreme symphonic achievements of the
last century one can always learn something new about it so
exposure to it through a variety of recordings and live performances
is important. This Sanderling performance is a most honourable
addition to my collection. Itís a fine achievement and Iím delighted
to see it restored to general circulation.