'His first appearance with the (then New) Philharmonia came in 1972, replacing an indisposed Otto Klemperer. Grand master status arrived when he recorded a cycle of Beethoven symphonies with the Philharmonia in 1981. The verdict of players in all the British orchestras he conducted, including the BBC Symphony, the BBC Philharmonic (or BBC Northern Symphony, as it then was), remained the same: a Sanderling concert was always an event, the conductor a rare figure to be respected – and permitted to talk at length about his point of view – by otherwise unimpressible musicians.'
The above is a quote from David Nice's Obituary of Sanderling, published in The Guardian, on 19 September 2011.
That regard for Sanderling by musicians may well have been the case - the young Simon Rattle attended the Beethoven recordings and still speaks highly of that experience - but, by and large the Beethoven Cycle received - and still receives - very short shrift. EMG, for example, totally canned the enterprise, calling it superfluous and unnecessary, especially in light of the Weller Cycle with the City of Birmingham Orchestra. While I respect Weller immensely, this assessment by the EMG critic reeks of provincial bias.
What of the performances? Well they are certainly in the Klemperer mould with slowish tempi, but there's that attention to the little things, that care about articulation and breath, all hallmarks of Sanderling's craft.
With regard to tempi, I know the New Wave of so-called Authentic interpreters play just about everything at breakneck speed and they must assume that in Beethoven's time everyone was hustling and bustling to get from point A to point B in record time: a bit like the very first silent films where everything that moves, moves at an exaggerated speed. Well, I don't buy it. I know, for example, that my mother's childhood in the late 1920s and early 1930s on the border of Roumania and Serbia, was a weary horse-drawn trudge, the streets of Werchetz ringing not with speedy motor vehicles but with the constant clip-clop of horses pounding the pavements.
As I write I'm listening to the Scherzo of the First Symphony. It certainly moves along, but it's a measured canter, perhaps reflecting the tempo and times of Sanderling's childhood, a childhood roughly contemporaneous with my mother's. In that sense, Sanderling's tempi are surely much closer to what Beethoven would have imagined, such a long way from the supersonic speeds of the likes of Norrington and Gardiner. In that sense, perhaps the Original Instrument Gang are more 'authentic' to their times than to the times they intend to represent. (Mind you, post Reinhard Goebel's recording of the Brandenburgs I can't listen to any other recording of 3 and 6.)
When I listen to Sanderling's recording of Beethoven's First Symphony I fall in love with its music again. And, it should be noted, Sanderling's sound-world here does not skimp on prominent timpani. I recall Sanderling pointing out that the Second Symphony has way too many thumping timpani sforzandi to be considered a 'gemutliche' work.
The Second Symphony became one of Sanderling's beloved pets. He first recorded it with his Leningrad Orchestra in 1957 and that recording - in marvellous mono sound - simply oozes with love of this score. The second movement is simply glorious. Sanderling performed this music quite often and I have performances recorded from broadcasts with the Stuttgart Orchestra in the late 1990s, and Weitblick recordings with the Berlin Symphony -1973 - and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra - November 1997. In the Swedish recording timpani are much more prominent, the timing of the first movement, 14.36, almost the same as the Philharmonia recording, 14.24. Significantly, the Leningrad first movement comes in at 11.43.
Once again, what you get from Sanderling's Philharmonia Second is crystal-clear orchestral detail and significant 'con amore' playing. Once again, the second movement - one of Beethoven's neglected glories - is 'simply glorious' to coin a phrase yet again.
The Eroica will to some sound low key and 'old school'. My guess is that Sanderling may have found it difficult to identify with this work in the same way Furtwängler did. I understand that he greatly admired Furtwängler due to his pre-war Berlin connection, but temperamentally there was a huge gap, a gap, perhaps defined by Sanderling's Jewish background. In other words, the concept of Napoleon, to whom the work was initially dedicated, and the notion of empire and fate and Prometheus-like regeneration, may not have 'tweaked' with Sanderling, especially after his close encounters with Hitler and Stalin.
The Fourth is magnificent. It's invigorated, propulsive, alive.
Then to the Fifth. Well, there have been many more propulsive recordings, some of them, including Carlos Kleiber's, way too propulsive in my estimation. Sanderling keeps things at an even flow. If, as in his recording of the Emperor, you want to catch Sanderling on-song and flying with the wind, check out a Capriccio recording of the Fifth made with the Berlin Symphony at a Berlin Symphony Commemoration released by Capriccio, a performance captured also on a Weitblick CD coupled with a 1963 Second Symphony. The music flies here, it's propulsive and celebratory.
The Sixth is Klemperer-like in tempo - remember both came from a similar Prussian background - and it's beautiful for what it is. Years later Hänssler Profil issued a live recording with the SWDR orchestra and it's magnificent, much better recorded, same tempi, the orchestra revelling in Sanderling' s significant insights. For me the crux of this music is in the first movement, roundabout 3.20 into the first movement, the basses thumping, the music aiming at some kind of resolution, a resolution approaching the 4.40 minute mark. Just wonderful music making. The SWDR recording was crucified by Jerry Dubins in Fanfare.
Now we come to the Seventh. Forget Carlos Kleiber, forget every notion you have of this symphony, under Sanderling it's massive and architectural, once again Klemperer-like, and inexorable. It's like having the work rolled out in front of you, every note counts, every orchestral voice is heard. Remember though, we are hearing this exposition at Sanderling's pace, Roger Norrington eat your heart out, why don't you just relax and enjoy the music.
The Eighth is glorious. Once again, Sanderling's trademark, every note counts, the music simply unfolds before us, nothing exaggerated, nothing highlighted; here we have Symphony number 8 by Ludwig Van Beethoven. Highlights occur around 4:30 into the first movement: the Philharmonia is playing as if its life depended on it. And if the opening of the second movement doesn't put a big smile on your face then you have a heart of stone. In an ideal world this recording would be on the curriculum of every conducting school in the world.
Then we come to the Ninth; "Alle menschen werden Bruder". Yes, indeed. What a catastrophe that would be for the world we know - what: no wars, no nuclear weapons, no billionaires, no emaciated poor.
We have the hushed opening, creation from chaos, and Sanderling takes this piece of forlorn hope and pity to its so-called triumphant conclusion. We learn many lessons along the way in this recording. We learn, for instance that though all roads lead to Rome, there are many differing paths to get there. There is the 1942 hysterical Furtwängler path - hysterical for a few aggregated million obvious reasons. There is the Bernstein "Berlin Unification" path. There is the false jubilation path. Then there is the Sanderling/Klemperer path: the Beethoven Symphony No. 9 which happens to finish with The Ode to Joy. The Furtwängler recording is sensational: it's a statement of independence from tyranny, but it's an extreme statement made in a time where those statements meant something. Not that there is an even bigger need for these statements today, but the context is different: the changes we need to make today apply to everybody on this planet. We need direction, not hysteria. Sanderling's recording of this might work in just that direction. It's logical, it's sane, it's rational and it imparts that wonderful sense of awe we feel in the face of a work of such contrite and life-affirming genius: Beethoven, Symphony number 9, The Choral.
The second movement in this recording is once again sane and perfect. It's also the music which awakened me to Classical music. I was 14, had a massive migraine, tried to sleep in a hot January Melbourne summer bedroom, windows closed, towels shielding me from gaps between doors and floor, my father two rooms away playing one of the five records he had just bought at Christmas time along with his Pye Stereogram.
I was a Manfred Mann/Rolling Stones lad but somehow wafts of notes from this scherzo crept through the walls and underneath the doors and permeated my very teenage-thick skull. In the morning I played every track of those five records and discovered Ludwig Van Beethoven, Symphony Number 9. It was conducted by Ernest Ansermet, Decca Ace of Diamonds. I decided I wanted to hear symphonies 1 to 8 as well, because, in the end, that's the kind of fella I am.
Sanderling recorded the Beethoven Piano Concertos regularly during his career. There are Russian recordings with Yudina and Grunburg, and the 1st, 4th and 5th with Gilels. Then he recorded a live cycle with Gilels in Prague in 1958. There is also a DG Vienna Symphony Third with Richter. All of these are worth hearing. Sanderling's best Beethoven as an accompanist was with the aforementioned Zechlin and the series he recorded with Uchida for Philips in the 1990s with the Bavarian Radio Orchestra and the Concertgebouw. Uchida was a very keen 'disciple' of Sanderling's conducting. So much so that she featured in his last concert, released by Harmonia Mundi, where she played Mozart's 24th Concerto.
Uchida also told a significant Sanderling story in an interview published by Gramophone after the release of her recording with Boulez of the Berg Chamber Concerto for Piano, Violin and 13 instruments. She said that she had tried to convert Sanderling to an appreciation of Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School. Sanderling said he was not interested in that music - that his affinities lay elsewhere. This anecdote perhaps encapsulates my affinity with Sanderling. Schoenberg's music makes my skin crawl. I've tried so hard; I have recordings of all of his works but his music leaves me cold. I find it intellectual and arid, the antithesis of what music means to me. Give me Rachmaninov any day, a thousand times so. However I really do like the music of Berg and Webern.
The Uchida/Sanderling Beethoven set is indispensable.
I have one significant personal story about Sanderling conducting the Beethoven Piano Concertos. One Sunday afternoon, probably 16 years ago, I set off in my car to do some shopping. The radio came on. Beethoven's Second Concerto had just started. I was listening to the Orchestral introduction. The second is the least regarded of the five Concertos; it's the short shrift also-ran. Not in this performance, however. This orchestra was switched on. It had caught the wind of what these notes meant. I stopped the car, reversed, rushed back home, raced inside to set up my amplifier and Aiwa tape deck because I realized only one conductor could make such significant music from this humble work, a conductor called Kurt Sanderling. It was indeed an ABC broadcast of a live performance with the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, now called the Deutsche Symphony Orchestra, Berlin. The pianist was Peter Rösel. It happened to be one of Sanderling's last concerts. It finished with a valedictory performance of a Sanderling specialty - the Bruckner 3.
Yes, Sanderling was a magnificent Bruckner conductor. He seems to have concerned himself with just three of the nine symphonies: the 3rd, the 4th and the 7th.
He recorded the 3rd in the 1960s with the Leipzig Gewandhaus, my father's home-town band, and it's available on Berlin Classics. It's a mighty performance, using the 1888/89 edition. On the generally excellent Sanderling Discography Site there are nine recordings of this work, mostly bootleg labels, including a live performance given with the BBC Northern Orchestra recorded in 1978. It does not, however, list a performance with the Concertgebouw available in Volume 6 of that orchestra's series of anthologies. It was recorded in 1996 and I wish I could afford to buy it.
The 4th was recorded in concert in 1994 with the Bavarian Radio Orchestra. It's available on Hänssler Profil and is simply magnificent. It's leisurely but it gives such significant voice to every aspect of this marvellous score. It's available singly and as part of a Profil set which also includes a Brahms Double Concerto (of which more anon), that wonderful Beethoven 6 and the three Rachmaninov Symphonies, the first two with the Leningrad/St Petersburg, the third a recent performance with Günter Wand's NDR.
There are two recordings of the 7th, once available on Unicorn on LP, a live recording with the Danish Radio Orchestra - available as a free download on John Berky's Bruckner site - which is so-so, and a magnificent life-affirming live Stuttgart recording from 1999, available on Hänssler. This, the Leipzig 3rd and the Profil 4th are indispensable if you are a committed Brucknerian.
I am a very committed Brucknerian, I have nearly 60 recordings of the 8th symphony alone. In the 3 works I've mentioned, Sanderling places himself on the same level as a Bruckner conductor as Jochum, Furtwängler and Celibidache.
Many conductors who do Bruckner don't do Mahler and vice versa. That's understandable — they inhabit disparate universes. Furtwängler is an example, as is Mengelberg and Jochum - apart from Das Lied - Barenboim, though he has begun to dabble seriously in Mahler, Celibidache, Skrowaczewski, Bernstein (apart from Bruckner 6 and 9) and Blomstedt.
Here again, Sanderling was selective. He recorded only Symphonies 4, 9 and 10, Das Lied and The Songs of a Wayfarer with Herman Prey. The 4th is available on BBC Classics, a lovely performance from 1978, Felicity Lott, the soprano in the fourth movement. The CD starts with Mozart's Don Giovanni Overture and it reminds us of what a great Mozart conductor Sanderling was. Unfortunately, apart from Uchida's Piano Concerto No. 24 and those four operas performed in Leningrad, there is only the Russian K 334 and a few Japanese recordings of concerts from Japan.
There are four recordings of Sanderling conducting Mahler 9: a magnificent Berlin Symphony rendition, two BBC recordings, one from 1981, the other 1982. The 1982 one was available on IMP Classics. The 1981 example appeared on BBC classics. Both are great recordings. What is significant here is that the IMP recording was released in 1996, the BBC recording a few years later and only one music critic noted the separate recording dates and the difference in timing.
Sanderling's Mahler 9, in both recordings, is sparse. It's tough, it ain't pretty. It ain't Karajan, it ain't Bernstein, it's Mahler Symphony number 9, every last syllable accounted for. The Erato Philharmonia recording, 1992, is also great. It's slower than the two BBC versions, and if pressed I would nominate it as his best. I've always had a problem with it because it's such a recessed recording. Early Digital, give me analogue any day; the Berlin Classics recording just sounds more alive.
I do however note that I bought this 2 CD set in 1992 and paid forty Australian Dollars for it. Today I can buy Warner boxed sets of the complete Alban Berg Beethoven Quartets for $18 from Presto. It's no wonder record companies went broke. They were simply too greedy.
Sanderling's crowning Mahler glories are the recordings of the Cooke/Sanderling arrangement of Mahler's 10 and Das Lied with Finnila and Schreier. These are indispensable, the 10 a pioneering recording. Only the Ormandy, a good recording as such - Ormandy didn't make bad recordings - was available at the time and it has received, by and large, the accolades it deserves. Not so Das Lied, however but just tune in and listen to Schreier singing the 'Drunken' song and you'll get what I mean. This is a Lied von Der Erde which rubs shoulders with Klemperer and anyone else you'd care to mention.
Next we have Dimitri Shostakovich. As I have mentioned, he and Sanderling were colleagues, probably even friends, although Sanderling never blew his own trumpet in this regard.
For me, the great Shostakovich conductor was Kurt Sanderling. He recorded Symphonies 1, 5 - there are two recordings - 6, 8 - counting Weitblick there are two recordings - 10 of which there are two recordings and 15 of which there are three recordings. In an ideal world, Kurt Sanderling would have also recorded my favourite Shostakovich symphony, Number 4, and at least the Thirteenth, Babi Yar.
In all of these recordings — 1, 5, 6, 8, 10 and 15 with the Berlin Symphony, 10 a live recording from 1978 with the French National Orchestra available on Avie, 15 also with the Cleveland and the Berlin Philharmonic — Sanderling imparts his signature characteristics, namely, that each note in the music becomes significant. Each note is played for its full value, nothing more illustrative of this than the very beginning of the Berlin recording of the 5th; that Attaca is ferocious, not lame and apologetic as in just about every other recording. This is even more so at precisely 4.59 where the violins here introduce the main theme, magically, hushed, portentous. This is the essence of Sanderling's art.
Also not to be missed is Sanderling's Rachmaninov. He recorded the Second Symphony with his Leningraders in the late 1950s for DG, apparently he recorded the first with the same orchestra in Russia earlier- though John Hunt questions this. It's just that whoever did wave the wand for this recording was a total genius - and in a newly released Profil Box which includes both of these performances, plus Richter in Piano Concerto 1 and 2, that glorious Beethoven 6, that echt and Brahmsian Double Concerto, a Richter 1950s Russian Beethoven Choral Fantasia, you get a late 1990s NDR Symphony 3 as well. I've heard it via Spotify, in fact I have a tape of the performance and it's 'mighty'.
Sanderling then, in the late 1990s re-recorded the Second Symphony with the Philharmonia for Teldec. Once again, critics damned with very faint praise. I have real problems with those critics. Here were these musical amateurs, not performers, pontificating on the music-making of a conductor who had a deeply involved history with this once neglected masterpiece. If you listen to the performance and hear it for what it is, namely a life-felt appreciation of a neglected masterpiece, you forget that it may or may not correspond to your conception of how it should go, or how it went under Previn. Listen with your ears to this recording: it breathes, it breathes love and devotion to this mighty score.
Best of all, Rachmaninov-wise, is the Concerto set he made with Peter Rösel. Bill Newman, in a 1990s publication called "Records and Recordings", nominated this set as the best Rachmaninov Concerto set available. It's still available, on Berlin Classics, including the simply very best recording ever made of the Paganini Variations.
One recording I forgot to mention is the César Franck Symphony: Sanderling's approach is related to the Klemperer concept but I have yet to see any problem with that.
Sanderling also had a great love for Tchaikovsky, especially his Fourth Symphony. This was his share of the last three recorded by DG in Vienna in mono in the late 1950s and he played it more than any of the others. He recorded the last three for Denon in the late 1970s with the Berlin Symphony, and there is a marvellous DVD of the Fourth where Sanderling conducts the Berlin Philharmonic. This is the DVD which includes that very sober but very musical Saint-Saens Second Concerto with Feltsman. Oh, and on the subject of DVDs, there is also an ICA DVD of a BBC Northern concert of Mahler's Das Lied.
I leave you with the words of Mitsuko Uchida. It is a quote from the YouTube documentary 'Reisender Durch ein Jahrhundert':-
'Kurt Sanderling, er wahr ein mensch.'
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