year I reviewed
performance, with the same orchestra of Mahler’s Ninth
Symphony. That impressive performance was made in 1982.
Five years earlier, before the orchestra had been renamed
BBC Philharmonic, Sanderling led them in this account of
the Fourth symphony.
I was interested to discover that the important violin
solo in the second movement of the symphony is played by
the orchestra’s then-leader, Dennis Simons. I had the pleasure
of meeting Mr Simons on a couple of occasions in the late
1970s when he played concertos (Bruch and Brahms) with
the amateur orchestra in which I played at that time. It’s
nice to be reminded on this disc of his fine playing. I
remember him also as a charming, courteous man and that
comes across in the warm recollections of Kurt Sanderling
which he contributes to the booklet note accompanying this
The note also includes some comments by Kurt Sanderling’s
son, Thomas, himself a distinguished conductor. He points
out that the “psychological dualism” of this symphony fascinated
his father. That will come as no surprise to those who
have read Tony Duggan’s absorbing essay
this work in his synoptic survey of the Mahler symphonies
on disc. As Tony writes: “Since this is Mahler's shortest
symphony and the one with the prettiest and most tuneful
textures it's earned its place as his most popular and
approachable. But be careful about viewing it as entirely
untroubled. There are dark shades cast on the filigree
textures and piquant colours.”
The impression I have is that Sanderling, for all the
virtues of his performance, is perhaps a little too severe.
I miss the charm, the naïveté
, that other conductors
have brought to this score. The first movement sounds quite
straight and sober here. There’s not a great deal of evidence
of Viennese rubato and the reading struck me as being somewhat
lean and classical. The rhythms are well sprung and the
music moves forward - quite briskly so at times. I think
I’d sum up the reading as clear-eyed and purposeful.
The second movement is light and dexterous. Dennis Simons’ violin
solos are characterful without any unwelcome exaggeration.
Mind you, it’s only fair to say that he’s not the only
good soloist we hear. In this movement, and elsewhere,
the woodwind principals and the first horn all distinguish
themselves at regular intervals. Sanderling brings out
the grotesque side of the music well but there are also
some welcome examples of warmth, not least the lovely,
romantic playing of the violins at around 7:00. However,
the warmth always stays on the right side of indulgence.
The beautiful slow movement is warmly lyrical at the
outset and the BBC musicians offer their distinguished
guest some dedicated playing. When the great climax arrives
(17:18) the timpanist is superbly incisive – but is his
playing also a bit too dominant? I have to say I felt a
bit cheated at this point. The climax is over almost in
a flash, it seems. The last thing one wants here is grandiosity
but the passage should be like a momentary glimpse of heaven
and I feel Sanderling’s approach to it is a bit matter
of fact and misses the radiance of the moment.
The finale features Dame Felicity Lott, who also appeared
on Franz Welser-Möst’s EMI recording, a version that I’ve
not heard. She sings nicely and Sanderling supports her
well, bringing out also the slightly gothic elements in
the orchestral passages between the soloist’s verses. But
the concluding stanza (from 5:11 onwards) is a bit of a
disappointment. The playing isn’t sufficiently hushed,
nor is Dame Felicity’s singing. I miss the sense of magical
repose that one gets, for example, with Judith Raskin and
George Szell or from the luminous Lucia Popp with Klaus
Tennstedt. I suppose, perhaps that these last few minutes
sum up what, to me, is lacking in this reading, namely
innocence and poetry.
This is a reading that has many virtues – how could
it not with a thoughtful musician such as Sanderling at
the helm? Others may respond to it more positively than
I have so far but right now it doesn’t feel like a recording
to rank beside the very best available versions of the
symphony and I don’t believe it’s quite as important an
addition to the Mahler discography as was Sanderling’s
view of the Ninth. Having said that, I’m not aware that
there’s an alternative Sanderling performance of this work available
on CD and that in itself makes its appearance worthy of
note, especially since Thomas Sanderling says that, after
the Ninth, this was the Mahler symphony most frequently
conducted by his father.
Before the symphony we hear a tautly controlled account
of the Don Giovanni
Overture. The coupling
is apt, for this piece also has both a dark side and a
lighter one. Sanderling’s opening is darkly imposing and
he leads a muscular account of the main allegro.
The playing of the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra is
pretty good throughout, with only a few minor rough edges,
and brought back for me some happy memories of concert-going
in Yorkshire in the years around the time of these recordings.
Good, clear BBC studio sound and a useful note complete
the attractions of this disc.
Though I have some reservations about Sanderling’s reading
of the symphony he’s an intelligent and thoughtful Mahlerian
and admirers of Mahler or of this conductor should hear