Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Ein Heldenleben, op. 40 (1897-1898) [42:48]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Symphony no.8 in B minor, D759 Unfinished (1822) [27:19]
Barry Griffiths (solo violin)
BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra/Kurt Sanderling
rec. Free Trade Hall, Manchester, 30 September 1975 (Strauss); BBC studios, Manchester, 17 April 1978 (Schubert)
BBC LEGENDS BBCL 4262-2 [70:25]

Ein Heldenleben is all too often a piece for show-offs. Orchestras glory in demonstrating their virtuosity – and the sheer noise that they can make – while sound engineers have a real field day displaying what they and their technology can do. Meanwhile, egocentric conductors can picture themselves as the heroic central focus of Strauss’s musical canvas: Herbert von Karajan did so quite literally, of course, in 1974 when he was notoriously depicted on the cover of his new EMI recording dressed as what appeared to be a leather-coated Aryan Übermensch lit as if for a Nuremburg rally - though, in his definitive Karajan biography, Richard Osborne notes that “a charitable view of this portrait would be that it makes him look like superannuated biker, albeit an extremely well preserved one.” It is, in such circumstances, all too easy to overlook the music itself or to take it for granted as simply a vehicle used by musicians for their own purposes.

I have listened to Strauss’s tone poem many times in the past few years, but this enthralling resurrected account from Kurt Sanderling and a BBC regional orchestra is a rare occasion where I can also say that I heard it. Set down in 1975, it is an example of pure – though certainly not simple – music-making that pays the composer the compliment of taking the piece seriously.

Kurt Sanderling – a most affable man, by all accounts, who has just passed away at the grand old age of 98 - spent a large proportion of his working life behind the Iron Curtain. From the 1970s onwards, however, he was increasingly allowed to travel internationally and, as we can see on this disc, did not confine himself to capital cities and metropolitan orchestras.

Make no mistake, however: the 1975 BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra (to be renamed the BBC Philharmonic seven years later) was a band that it was, if this performance is a guide, well worth travelling – or at least tuning in to BBC Radio 3 – in order to hear. David Patmore’s useful booklet notes quote its then leader Barry Griffiths as saying that Sanderling “gave us the impression that he thought we were a great orchestra and as a result he got the absolute most out of us”, and it is hard, listening to the results on this disc, to disagree with that assessment of the outcome. Mr Griffiths himself, for one, gives an outstandingly moving performance of the solo violin part – the first time, it seems, that he had played it in public: it is thus a pretty poor show that the Medici Arts proofreaders seem unsure whether his surname is “Griffiths” or “Griffith”.

This is, generally speaking, an account that plays down some of the score’s surface overkill in favour of a more contemplative and sensitive approach. That is not, however, to say that Sanderling’s tempi are especially slow. Indeed, looking at the versions on my own shelves I see that, in bringing in the work at 42:48, he outpaces such luminaries as Reiner/1954 (43:28), Beecham/1948 (43:29), Solti/1978 (44:03), Kempe/1974 (44:12), Karajan/1959 (45:39), Böhm/1957 (45:42) and Karajan/1986 (46:47). He is only pipped at the post by accounts from an older generation of conductors who seem to have been following an earlier and somewhat sprightlier performing tradition - Mengelberg/1941 (42:10), Toscanini/1941 (41:55), Monteux/1947 (41:46) and - the earliest “classic” account that we have – Mengelberg, the work’s original dedicatee, conducting the New York Philharmonic in 1928 and bringing Ein Heldenleben to a close in just 41:20.

The opening of Sanderling’s recording sets a high standard with rich, full strings pulsating along in a suitably refulgent but warm acoustic setting. It is clear that the orchestral forces have been balanced with great care and skill and the ear catches more detail than is often the case. The tone is darkened effectively in The hero’s adversaries and the BBCNSO’s characterful woodwinds demonstrate their considerable abilities. The hero’s companion puts Barry Griffiths in the spotlight – though he is perfectly balanced against the orchestra – and, as already noted, he rises to the challenge with apparently great confidence and considerable élan. This is an account of the solo part where such considerable tension is generated that, no matter how well you know it, each successive musical phrase seems to bring with it some new insight. The orchestra rises to the occasion too, producing some lush waves of sound that, while not perhaps rivalling the Berlin or Vienna Philharmonics in depth, are intensely involving.

Strauss’s military forces in The hero’s deeds of war are kept under tighter rein here than is often the case. Sanderling ensures that we hear all the thematic strands clearly and holds his full forces in reserve until we reach the appropriate musical point, creating a real and genuinely justified emotional resolution to the “conflict”. More exceptionally fine playing showcased within a carefully controlled dynamic range characterises The hero’s works of peace and leads us into a particularly effective The hero’s retirement from the world and the fulfilment of his life. Taken a little more deliberately than in many other recordings, and again notable for the particular sensitivity of Barry Griffiths’ solo contribution, this is an utterly beautiful account where tension and lyricism are exquisitely balanced to achieve another perfect emotional resolution. It is unfortunately that the cathartic effect was entirely lost on one thoughtless oaf in the audience who destroys the elegiac mood completely with inappropriately timed applause, but the thunderous appreciation of his fellow concertgoers is certainly fully justified.

The Strauss is coupled on this disc with Sanderling’s only extant recording of Schubert’s Unfinished. This is once again an account to be treasured. The key features in Sanderling’s approach are, as indicated in the booklet notes, concentration and intensity, qualities he clearly imparted to the orchestra. Once again, the BBCNSO is beautifully balanced and the wide dynamic range that the conductor successfully creates gives new colours and new life to the music. The emphasis is again on balancing Schubert’s lyricism with carefully controlled tension and drama and that aim is fully achieved. Just as with Ein Heldenleben, this account had me listening to the score with an unexpected level of attention and fresh ears.

If you look at our MusicWeb Bulletin Board, you will, incidentally, find an interesting thread entitled Greatest conductor. Over almost 3½ years it generated quite a heated exchange of views, a few of them quite eccentric: Zubin Mehta as the greatest living conductor? Nevertheless, having heard this BBC Legends disc I can now begin to see where the final (to date) contributor, a certain José Schneider, was coming from when he wrote as follows:

“I had the luck to see (hear) Kurt Sanderling conducting Brahms and Shostakovich in his late eighties, shortly before retiring, in Madrid of all places (our shabby National Orchestra, which is quoted by Kondrashin in his memoirs as the worst he ever conducted, suddenly sounded like the Berlin Philharmonic, or the likes). Well, the only thing I can say is that I have tried to buy all available records by him since, and I have not been let down once!”

Rob Maynard

Had me listening with an unexpected level of attention and fresh ears.

Masterwork Index: Ein Heldenleben