Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Das Lied von der Erde (1908-9) [62:01]
Symphony No.9 in D major (1909) [80:35]
Symphony No. 10 in F sharp major - 2nd performing edition by Deryck Cooke (1910) [73:46]
Berliner Sinfonie-Orchester/Kurt Sanderling
rec. Christuskirche Berlin Germany, 28 February-2 March 1979 (Symphony No.9); 29-30 November, 13-15 December 1979 (Symphony No.10); 3-5 February, 2-4 June 1983 (Das Lied). ADD
BERLIN CLASSICS 0300440BC [3 CDs: 62:01 + 80:35 + 73:46]
None of these recordings are new or indeed new to the catalogue but until now they have only been fitfully available and, as far as I am aware, not in a single set. Previously the 9th had been split across two discs - here it has been squeezed onto a single exceptionally full one. The impetus for their re-release in this format is to mark the centenary of the birth of conductor Kurt Sanderling and at a low-mid price they are worth consideration albeit with some important caveats.
The booklet - in German and English only - makes several interesting and important points about Sanderling’s approach to Mahler. The appreciation of Mahler was significantly different between East and West Germany. When Sanderling came to record this version of the 10th Symphony in 1979 it was only one year after the first complete performance of the Cooke performing edition there - also by Sanderling. Sanderling was evangelising this music at a time when important members of the State intelligentsia could be found writing that these late works were “filled with self-pity and nihilistic views of himself [Mahler] ….. [they] can no longer be respected as ‘socially true’”. This same author went on to say they ran counter to the demands of Socialist Realism. When we know now the risks that Soviet composers took if they worked contrary to such statements it is possible to see that Sanderling was taking a brave stand not just musically but professionally and indeed personally. All of these recordings were made by the same production team - albeit over a period of years - and in conjunction with live performances. As that might imply these do result in a sequence of performances with a very clear and cogent interpretative style allied to committed playing from a clearly engaged Berlin Symphony Orchestra. There are some small ensemble fluffs and intonation issues that one feels would have been remedied today - the piccolo/string harmonics at the end of Von der Jugend in Das Lied von der Erde rather made me twitch - but conversely this element of roughness, which never degenerates into anything sloppy or careless, gives these performances a conviction and sincerity other more cultivated versions lack.
So far so good, but there are significant other factors to consider. The recordings are all from analogue sources digitally re-mastered. For late analogue they have a surprisingly high amount of analogue hiss. There are odd other audio artefacts too. The great final Abschied of Das Lied von der Erde is accompanied by faint but distinct birdsong! I found this strangely charming and certainly more appropriate than the traffic noise that is audible on the other two discs in the quiet passages. One assumes that the engineers of the time believed that it would be below the sound floor of most domestic sound systems. The biggest problem I have with this set is the recorded sound itself. It is better - more natural in its perspective - in the song-cycle but both the symphonies suffer to differing degrees from a very close, rather synthetically spotlit, sound-stage. This has the effect of reducing the dynamic range with the quiet passages in particular suffering from a lack of really hushed intensity. Indeed when the strings play quietly one hears basically the front desks with some filling in from behind. This works more to the detriment of the 9th Symphony particularly in the two great slow outer movements. As might be expected the up-front and personal sound benefits the third movement Rondo-Burleske with the sour humour played with biting impact. Next to it Barbirolli’s famed account (EMI) from the other side of the Wall sounds almost good-humoured. What a difference a few kilometres makes in other ways too. Sanderling’s horns have a distinctly East European warmth quite unlike their Western compatriots and the DDR woodwind have an edge that makes the music sound more modern than in other more moulded wind sections. Indeed, if I had to characterise Sanderling’s approach across all three works it would be as austerely modernist. Certainly he avoids any accusations of these works being histrionic exercises in self-absorption. On the other hand the deliberate plainness of his approach treads a narrow tight-rope between austere and just dull. Here again the recording does not really help the players sustain textures and tension through the extended chamber-like passages of the Ninth.
Returning to Das Lied this plainness is again an issue … in part. Not that the contribution of tenor Peter Schreier could be termed plain for an instant. Given that Schreier’s career has been mainly associated with Baroque, Classical and Lieder repertoire he is not the most obvious choice for the tenor role in this cycle. Indeed he does seem to be forcing his tone on occasion to ride the storm of Mahler’s orchestration. To my ear his is a sensational and profoundly original reading of these songs; no texts included - black mark to Berlin Classics. In Schreier’s hands these become strangely disturbing - almost expressionist. Every note is phrased and every syllable considered with extraordinary care. It would be foolish to say he makes as sheerly beautiful a sound as Heppner with Bertini on EMI or Kmentt for Kubelik on Audite let alone the unsurpassed Wunderlich with Klemperer again on EMI but this is a version to make you reconsider how a work can be interpreted on a fundamental level. I could imagine some would not respond to this approach at all but for me it is one of the two main reasons to consider purchasing this set. Unfortunately Schreier’s singing colleague is the Swedish contralto Birgit Finnilä. Possibly after the neurotic excesses of Schreier’s deeply personal interpretation we need something more objective but Finnilä I find simply lacking. Perhaps, again, one has the sound of a Ludwig or a Baker too firmly embedded in one’s ear but in that company I find that I do not warm to the sound Finnilä makes. Her voice seems to suffer from an unevenness of projection and tone that prevents Mahler’s long and agonisedly arching lines pulling the listener relentlessly onward. I find her interpretation generalised in the way Schreier is anything but. With Sanderling accompanying her there are many felicities in the orchestral part but this is not enough to rescue her movements from a sense of major disappointment. All of which is a great shame when one realises that this is a score to which Sanderling had an especial attachment - it was one of the few he carried with him when he fled Nazi Germany in 1936.
Approaching the final disc things are rather in the balance with a distinctly mixed Das Lied and a 9th Symphony rather undermined by less than demonstration quality sonics. Not that, in many ways, the sound is very different in the 10th Symphony - why should it be. They were recorded only a few months apart by the same team in the same venue. Crucially the 10th is presented in Deryck Cooke’s performing version and even in its fuller second reworking - as here. There is still a distinct evolution in Mahler’s orchestrational vocabulary from the 9th that suits the chosen recording style better. Additionally, this strikes me as Sanderling’s most successful interpretation of the three offered here. The liner outlines the adjustments Sanderling made to Cooke’s edition in conjunction with his friend and fellow-editor of the score, Berthold Goldschmidt. Most notably he adds extra percussion for the final movement’s cathartic climax. As mentioned before, the playing is admirably committed throughout but that is raised several notches here and Sanderling is more interventionist than elsewhere. Comparing this again with the more prestigious Berlin Philharmonic - in Simon Rattle’s award-winning EMI disc from 2000 - is very interesting. Let’s be clear, they are both fine performances but I find I prefer the less elegant, pawky, less accepting Berlin Symphony Orchestra version. Try the second movement Scherzo; Sanderling’s heavy punchier tempo - here aided by the upfront and personal recording - had me thinking of say Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony in a way I had never noticed before. As an aside; Ormandy’s unvarnished, sonically unsubtle Mahler/Cooke ‘I’ (Sony) still impresses hugely by the sheer force of its zealous vision. Rattle - a good two minutes quicker in this movement alone - presents a lighter altogether more fluent interpretation but it is Sanderling who seems more modern and questioning. It is worth remembering that at the time of its recording this was just the second time - after Wyn Morris - that Cooke II had been recorded. Sanderling is especially good at pacing the big paragraphs in the outer movements especially. Indeed, the closing pages after the famous crisis/discord are as beautifully controlled as any version I know. I do long in this passage particularly for the sheer beauty of sound Rattle conjures from his Berlin orchestra but Sanderling is marvellous as sustaining the sense of gently dying rapture. My only query is whether or not he should have coaxed his string players into more dangerous portamenti, they are here for sure but ever so slightly safely. To be fair this is totally in line with the objectivity of his readings throughout the set. With music like this the debate about whether it is or isn’t real Mahler seems to me to fall away to irrelevance - the world is a richer place for having it whatever the origin.
Mahler collectors are groaning under a burden of great performances of every work. How can I get this far into a Mahler comparative review with no mention of a Tennstedt, Haitink, Bernstein or Solti or indeed a host of others? It is worth recalling that of the older generation of major conductors most closely associated with Mahler only Sanderling seems to have embraced a completed version of the 10th Symphony; I do not include Ormandy in that group since his recorded Mahler legacy is relatively small. That being the case, and with music so open to a host of valid and convincing interpretations this set needs to be considered on its own merits. As a document of its conductor’s consistent vision and in memory for his evangelical work in the Eastern Bloc it is of great value. Whether or not it supplants other versions is far less clear. In the 10th Symphony it is up there with the best, in the song-cycle I will be returning to the tenor movements but I’m not sure I will ever listen to the performance as a complete whole again. The 9th is harder to categorise and the listener’s response to it will depend upon their own individual preference - a better technical recording might well have made the case for Sanderling’s unmannered yet intensely musical approach more compelling. As it is I did find myself hankering after a more dynamic approach but will revisit this version as my listening mood dictates. Given that the different elements of this set are available with a little searching at reasonable prices I suspect the judicious advice for a collector would be to try and hear samples first and/or pick and choose the performances that appeal. Each performance contains passages or movements of great impact but that is balanced by other issues both technical and musical. On balance and for the Mahler devotee I would suggest the 10th and Schreier’s contribution to Das Lied are mandatory listening.
For the Mahler devotee I would suggest the 10th and Schreier’s in Das Lied as mandatory listening.