Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856) Symphony No. 4 in D minor, Op. 120 [32:09]
Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911) Das Lied von der Erde [63:16]
Carolyn Watkinson (mezzo); John Mitchinson (tenor)
BBC Philharmonic Orchestra/Kurt Sanderling
rec. 29 July 1988, Royal Albert Hall, London
English and French subtitles
Region Code 0; Picture Format 4:3; DVD Format NTSC
ICA CLASSICS ICAD 5042 [95:29]

The centenary of the birth of the distinguished German conductor, Kurt Sanderling, who died earlier this year, falls in September 2012. I hope that the anniversary will result in the reissue of more examples of his recorded legacy. Slightly in advance of the centenary, and issued for the first time on DVD, ICA Classics have made available these performances, given at a BBC Promenade Concert a few weeks before Sanderling’s 76th birthday.

His relationship with the BBC Philharmonic was a fruitful one and several examples of their collaboration have already been issued on CD. Only recently my colleague, Rob Maynard, enthused about a 1975 account of Ein Heldenleben. I haven’t had the chance to hear that yet. A recording that I have heard, however, is another Mahler performance with the same orchestra. Sanderling’s 1982 reading of the Ninth impressed me very much so I was very keen to hear – and see – him in another late Mahler piece.

As well as Das Lied von der Erde Sanderling’s Prom programme included Schumann’s Fourth Symphony. In his very readable notes Piers Burton-Page comments that the conductor is “relaxed and smiling” as he conducts this symphony. Indeed he is. It’s a scrupulously prepared performance but that doesn’t stop it being relaxed. In the first movement Sanderling brings out the lyrical side of the music and he doesn’t drive it too hard – as some do. It’s a rhythmically strong traversal yet it’s also genial. Sanderling takes evident care over the phrasing in the second movement yet, though one realises that he’s shaping the music, the impression is more that he’s guiding it. I like his way with the scherzo, which is sturdy, but the trio is gracefully phrased. There’s excellent suspense in the transition to the finale and once that movement is reached Sanderling leads a performance that’s light on its feet and which he shows every sign of enjoying. Throughout the performance he’s economical yet clear in his gestures and he obtains some very good playing from the orchestra.

Piers Burton-Page comments that Carolyn Watkinson might have been thought a surprise choice for Das Lied von der Erde as she was thought of more as a specialist in Baroque music and I must admit I shared that surprise. If, for example, you look at her discography on Wikipedia – which may not be comprehensive, of course – there’s not a lot of music that’s later than Mozart. That said, I have a recording – not listed on Wikipedia – in which she sings in a live 1983 performance of Mahler’s Third; that’s included in the now-deleted Philips box of Christmas Day Mahler performances by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and Bernard Haitink. So Miss Watkinson was no stranger to Mahler at the time of this present performance.

The presence of her fellow Lancastrian, John Mitchinson, however, would have been no surprise at all in 1988 since he was for many years the tenor of choice in this role, not just in the UK, and the well-thumbed copy from which he sings evidences his considerable experience in this role. Anyone who has heard his contribution to the unforgettable 1972 Jascha Horenstein performance – also with this orchestra – on BBC Legends (review) will know that Mitchinson was a considerable exponent of this role. Here, sixteen years later, he’s still right on top of the part and it’s interesting to hear him essay it here with a conductor who, perhaps, takes a rather less dark view of the work than Horenstein.

John Mitchinson easily has the vocal heft to project ‘Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde’ in a strong, manly fashion – this, after all, is a tenor who I have heard in distinguished CD portrayals of the title roles in Tristan and Rienzi, to say nothing of a memorable Waldemar in Gurrelieder for Simon Rattle at Symphony Hall a few years ago. He surmounts all the challenges of Mahler’s demanding tessitura and long phrases without difficulty. However, on this occasion what I admired as much as anything was the delicacy that he – and Sanderling – brings to ‘Der Trunkene im Frühling’. There’s some finely detailed, delicate and characterful singing to enjoy here. In short, Mitchinson demonstrates that he has the full measure of every facet of the demanding tenor role in this work.

Carolyn Watkinson may have been, for some, a slightly surprising choice for this work and it should be said straightaway that her interpretation doesn’t have the degree of intensity that singers such as Dame Janet Baker or Brigitte Fassbaender have brought to the role. I had the impression that she was perhaps just a shade tentative in the first couple of minutes of ‘Der Einsame im Herbst’. On reflection, however, perhaps that was more a question of me getting used to her approach to the music. Her approach to this song is serious but quite calm – there’s no emotive exaggeration and that’s to be a hallmark of her reading of all three songs. Here, as so often during the work, Sanderling and the orchestra bring out the fine detail in the score very well – the oboe solos in this song, for example, are expertly done.

The big test in this work comes in ‘Der Abschied’ and here also Miss Watkinson offers calm, poised singing. I’ve heard more overtly expressive readings, both live and on disc, but this singer’s relative restraint brings its own rewards. And the longer I listened to the performance of the whole work and of this final song in particular I came to realise that her way with the music is very well attuned to Sanderling’s conception of it. I mentioned the delicacy of ‘Der Trunkene im Frühling’, which is one of many instances where Sanderling’s style reminds us that Das Lied is not a heavy work. That’s not to say for a moment that either he or his soloists short-change the listener in terms of engagement but this is a performance that doesn’t seek to wring every last bit of emotion out of the score. So Miss Watkinson and Kurt Sanderling give us a dignified, regretful farewell, not one full of angst. You notice this in the lengthy orchestral interlude in the centre of the final song, which is neither as broadly paced nor as doom-laden as some conductors conceive it but it’s still completely effective. The high standard of the orchestral playing, which has been a feature of the entire performance, is maintained throughout ‘Der Abschied’ with especially notable contributions from the principal flute and oboe. The one disappointment is that the audience scarcely waits after the music has stopped before bursting into applause.

A few words about overall presentation. There is a useful essay about the conductor by Piers Burton-Page. The picture quality is good; the source is a BBC television recording. The camera work is pretty straightforward and unfussy – certainly it’s mercifully free of any gimmickry and one can simply enjoy the performances without distraction. The sound is satisfactory - the soloists come over well and one gets a good aural overview of the orchestra. I do have one reservation which is that when the orchestra is playing quietly the bass line is rather indistinct. This is particularly the case in ‘Der Abschied’ where there are instances when the orchestra is underpinned by long soft pedal points played on the double basses; these are inaudible. However, I should say, in fairness, that I simply played the DVD through my DVD player and television. Many collectors of music DVDs will have their player linked up to their audio equipment and this may well produce better results.

The main thing, however, is that this DVD contains two very good performances led by a master conductor. Invest in it and see an economical and thoroughly musical maestro direct deeply considered performances that are the fruit of a lifetime’s experience. Kurt Sanderling is one of those conductors of whom it could be truly said ‘they don’t make ’em like that anymore’ – more’s the pity!

John Quinn

A thoroughly musical maestro directing deeply considered performances that are the fruit of a lifetime’s experience.