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ARTICLE Plain text for smartphones & printers

Kurt Sanderling: An Appreciation Of His Recordings - Part I
by Dieter Barkhoff

On page 274 of David Wooldridge's book, "Conductor's World" (1970, Praeger Publishers) there is a reference to a concert given in Berlin in 1957 by the Leningrad Philharmonic, specifically with regard to a performance of Rachmaninov's Second Symphony:-

"The whole concert under Sanderling - which had included a performance of the overture to Freischütz in the best tradition of Wagner, and an astonishing account of the Scriabin Piano Concerto with Emil Gilels as soloist - boded well for the Leningrad Philharmonic's title as the world's greatest orchestra, and Sanderling's title as the world's greatest conductor - a title which Rachmaninov had accorded to Leopold Stokowski."

Most classical music fanatics are aware that Robert Layton always regarded The definitive Rachmaninov Second Symphony as the DG recording Sanderling made with this orchestra around the same time. Most likely, that's about as much as they have at their fingertips about this very great conductor. There is in fact plenty more to know.

Some years ago a contributor to the Classical Music Guide Forum wrote: "I realized that I had never seen and heard a better performance of Prokofiev's great Sixth Symphony than the one conducted by Kurt Sanderling in Rotterdam, in the year 2000 (who reputedly conducted the first performances as well, back in Petersburg). And then it occurred to me that another one of the most exciting and wonderful concerts in my life had been with Kurt Sanderling, in Minneapolis back in the early nineties, with the best Schubert great C major I have ever heard. … Nothing will ever top those concerts."

"Trying to check the exact year of that great Minnesota Symphony concert I happened upon the home page of the Boston Symphony's bass trombonist, Douglas Yeo, who writes about his experiences with Kurt Sanderling. I hope he will not mind my copying these two paragraphs:

'On another, more personal note, there have been two occasions where playing this piece (Schubert 9) has truly been an epiphany for me - one of those all too rare moments where the entire orchestra is absolutely spot-on, and when I can go home and say 'That's why I play trombone.' The Boston Symphony performance on September 27, 1996 was one such occasion, when we performed the Schubert 9 with Seiji Ozawa. The other time was on November 28, 1992 with Kurt Sanderling conducting. Who? Kurt Sanderling, one of the most profound musicians I've ever met and had the pleasure to work for. He is truly the last of the "old world" conductors - he was co-conductor of the Leningrad Philharmonic in the 1930s (he made a blistering recording of the Tchaikovsky 4 with them on Decca mono LPDXE-142) and then labored (mostly in obscurity) in East Germany for decades. Some of the most sublime music-making I have ever made was with him (Bruckner 3, Shostakovich 15, more).

'When Sanderling conducts, everyone listens because he has authority. He is very elderly and very quiet, but when he gets on the podium, people pay attention. I took to writing down some of his comments because he uses such wonderful word pictures (as in the case of the Schubert 9) or imparts first hand knowledge about the musical sub-text (as in Shostakovich 15 - he KNEW Shostakovich very well).'

"Unfortunately, Yeo gets his dates wrong - Sanderling was a Chief Conductor of the Leningrad Philharmonic from 1942 onwards."

Kurt Sanderling was born in Arys, East Prussia, in 1912. Arys was a military town close to the Baltic city of Königsberg. Königsberg is now part of Russia: it has become Kaliningrad. Military towns mean military parades and military music. Sanderling reminisced about his awareness of the music of his childhood in a documentary available on YouTube called 'Reisender durch ein jahrhundert'. Sanderling's bands were Prussian - Mahler's childhood was rich with the music of the Austro-Hungarian military bands. Mahler's musical roots were brought home to me when my grandmother died in 1989. She had been born in the Banat, Voivodina, rural Hungary, part of the Austrian Hungarian Empire, replete with the sounds of accordions, folk music and small bands playing peasant dance tunes. The crowning musical glory emanated from the military bands that syncopated that ultimately tragic pre-Great War world. She was 89 when she died and I received the news while listening to Mahler's Seventh Symphony. It clicked for me that though my grandmother was not in the least bit interested in music, the music of her childhood would have been the same as Gustav Mahler's. Ironically, at the same time, I had recently watched one of Bernstein's documentaries on Mahler. Bernstein sat in front of a piano in an apartment in Tel Aviv on a summer's night while speaking about Mahler. All Lennie wanted us to know was about Mahler's Jewishness. This, of course, is precisely why I don't rate Bernstein's Mahler as highly as other music-lovers: Mahler's music is simply more than what Lennie had to say. Mahler's music is a goulash of central European folk music, the military bands of his childhood, the tenets of Catholicism - viz-à-viz the notion of The Resurrection - his Yiddisher ancestry and all rooted in Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert and Bruckner. I vividly recall Christoph von Dohnanyi's reference to how some conductors simply want to transport Mahler to 5th Avenue. Just to add to this line of thought, I believe Vaclav Neumann's Mahler is much more 'echt' and 'Mahlerian' than Bernstein's. I would say the same about Bertini's Mahler, and definitely about Kurt Sanderling's great recordings of Mahler's 4, 9, 10 and Das Lied.

In the early 1930s Sanderling moved to Berlin. I quote from Wikipedia: His early work at the Deutsche Oper, where he served as répétiteur for Wilhelm Furtwängler and Erich Kleiber, was cut short when the Nazi regime removed him from his post because he was Jewish.

In 1936 when the Nazis made it impossible for German-Jewish musicians to continue, unlike many of his Jewish conductor brethren, Sanderling went to Moscow instead of the USA. An uncle had been able to secure a position for him at the Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra. In 1939 he became the conductor of the Kharkov Orchestra. After being evacuated to Novosibirsk in 1942, where the Leningrad Philharmonic had also been evacuated, he, along with Mravinsky, was appointed Joint Chief Conductor of that orchestra. I emphasize the word 'joint' because some biographical data erroneously describes him as Mravinsky's assistant.

I confess that I have a kind of Dickensian connection to Kurt Sanderling here; Dickensian in the sense that there is a very significant amount of coincidence in the novels of Charles Dickens, coincidences which appeared very far-fetched and improbable in my youth, coincidences which I discovered as I grew older, to be almost the poetic basis of a life. The coincidence to do with Sanderling is that my father, who was conscripted in 1941 into the Wehrmacht when he turned seventeen, was a member of the German army - Paulus's Sixth Army - which was instrumental in Kurt Sanderling's evacuation from Kharkov to Novosibirsk. The significance for me is that my father was wounded near Kharkov. A bullet grazed his skull. He was flown back to Berlin where he recovered. He was re-posted to Bordeaux, then to the Abruzzo in Italy where he deserted on conscientious grounds.

In Novosibirsk - in late 1942 to be precise - Sanderling met Shostakovich and they became colleagues and friends. In later life Sanderling conducted a lot of Shostakovich's music. There are recordings of Symphonies 1, 5, 6, 8, 10 and 15; the latter work he recorded three times. There are also recordings of his first Violin Concerto and The Songs from Jewish Poetry. I also have been able to tape numerous Sanderling concerts broadcast in Australia by the ABC, one of which includes his son, Michael, now a prominent up-and-coming conductor himself, playing Shostakovich's glorious Second Cello Concerto.

That Sanderling had a personal relationship with Shostakovich is significant and the Shostakovich Society in the USA has published some interviews with Shostakovich about this relationship; they're available online. All in all, the perception is that Shostakovich's main connection to the Leningrad Phil was with Mravinsky, a perception enhanced, I believe by the fact that Mravinsky always had a kind of star attraction in the so-called West, a draw proven by the number of recordings released by the likes of Philips, Praga, EMI in the 1970s, DG in the 1960s, and more recently by BMG. I understand this as an obsessive need our 'culture' has for super-heroes, an attraction described by Joseph Horowitz in his book 'Understanding Toscanini'. It's as though our culture always demands that there is at least one superman conductor, whether it be Toscanini or Karajan or Rattle but that's another story. In the end what matters in relation to Sanderling's connection to Shostakovich is that practically nothing of this has permeated the consciousness of the Western musical press. And, to be fair, Sanderling himself hardly sounded his own trumpet in this regard. A biography, published in Germany - 2002: Kurt Sanderling & Ulrich Roloff-Momin: Andere machen Geschichte, ich machte Musik. Parthas, Berlin 2002, 431 pp., ill., discographie, ISBN 3-932529-35-9, (Biography; in German). Its title translates as: "Others make stories, I make music".

In 1960 Sanderling came home to Germany. In the documentary mentioned above, Sanderling walked to the podium of the Berlin Symphony Orchestra for the first time and simply announced that he was Kurt Sanderling, a German and a Jew. He then proceeded to make great music with them, much of which was recorded by what was then called Eterna, a label which lives on as Berlin Classics. Sanderling lived in Berlin until he died in 2011, a day before his 99th birthday. He had three children, all of them musicians and conductors: Thomas, born in Saint Petersburg to Sanderling's first wife, Stefan and Michael, born to Sanderling's second wife, Barbara Wagner, a bass player in the Berlin Symphony. Sanderling retired from conducting when he was 92.

His recordings can be split into four groups:

A: The Soviet recordings made from the late 1940s until the late fifties, two of which were also issued by DG - the Rachmaninov Second Symphony and Beethoven's Second Symphony.

B: The post-1960 recordings made mainly for Eterna, some of which were issued on DG, for example, the Tchaikovsky Romeo and Juliet, Haydn symphonies 45 and 104, and a recording of the Beethoven Third Piano Concerto with Richter and the VSO. He also recorded a weird but wonderful coupling of the Martinů Oboe Concerto coupled with Poulenc's Harpsichord Concerto with Růžičková. This has recently been issued as part of a 3 CD tribute to the latter by Supraphon. The Poulenc recording is simply unmissable; no other conductor makes so much of the Poulenc's marvellous orchestration, especially in the second and third movements. David Hurwitz has remarked on the power of this recording, noting that nobody but Sanderling could make so much music out of this piece.

C: The post-Eterna recordings made by EMI, Philips, Erato, Denon, BBC Classics, Capriccio, Danacord and Hänssler.

D: The recordings of concert performances released by Harmonia Mundi, BBC, Hänssler, Weitblick, many of which were made with Japanese orchestras.

The point I made about Sanderling's recording of the Poulenc summarizes the essence of Sanderling's conducting. In other words, Sanderling was a master at getting orchestras to play through and give meaning to the notes in the scores - every note. I can think of many examples from Sanderling's recordings where I feel I've heard the music for the first time. Perhaps the best and easiest example is the Rachmaninov Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini with Peter Rösel, issued by Berlin Classics. I have five other recordings of this work, including the Rachmaninov recording made with Rachmaninov's favourite conductor, Stokowski. In none of these recordings do you hear the exquisite orchestral detail that Sanderling allows you to you hear.

I don't want to give the impression that this is all that Sanderling's recordings offer. There are conductors who also like to leave their imprimatur on a score - Rattle's recordings of Mahler come to mind. In Rattle's case I hear detail at the expense of structure. In other words, while you are marvelling at Sir Simon's clever little ways, you've missed the big picture.

I don't wish to denigrate Rattle. More to the point, he was a very, very big fan of Sanderling's music-making. In some of Rattle's work his performances come across as a kaleidoscope of spot-lit highlights whereas in recordings like Sanderling's Rachmaninov Rhapsody a light is thrown onto the whole score - a liberating illumination. If I can draw an analogy here: a score is like a night sky and in clear conditions, as you get in the countryside, you gaze on a firmament full of sparkling, somehow integrated jewels of light. When Sanderling conducts, this is what you get. In many recordings made by lesser figures, that illuminated firmament is seen through the gauze of a city's smog.

Sanderling's recording of the Borodin Second Symphony is similar. The gorgeous second movement sounds vaguely passionate under Kondrashin with the Concertgebouw. It simply throbs with noble conviction under Sanderling; as for the Dresden Staatskapelle they are in glorious form. On this Berlin Classics recording, you also get a restrained, almost Teutonic version of Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet - a sense of restraint in the Klemperer mould, where one gains the impression that the veil of Slavic/Romantic hysteria has been lifted and that you are hearing what Tchaikovsky wrote. Tchaikovsky symphony number 6, for example - not 'The Pathétique'.

There is another bonus on this CD, Borodin's In the Steppes of Central Asia. Here Sanderling presents the most piercing sense of isolation imaginable, the music almost howling with longing.

I think it best to leave the recordings made in Russia to Sanderling completists - of which I am one. Included here are recordings made with Richter - Bach BWV 1052 and Rachmaninov 1 and 2, Gilels - Beethoven Concertos, Zak's Brahms Second Piano Concerto and Yudina in more Beethoven. Add to these recordings as disparate in breath as you can imagine - Honegger, Handel, Bach, Mozart, Rachmaninov, Prokofiev Second Piano Concerto, Stravinsky, Szymanowski and Taneyev with David Oistrakh.

Perhaps most fascinating of all of these recordings is Sanderling's devotion to Mozart's operas, namely Figaro, Don Giovanni, The Magic Flute and The Abduction of the Seraglio. There is also a recording of Haydn's The Seasons. All of these are sung in Russian and are simply fascinating. You can listen to them online via the site '' or, for a small fee, you can download them. I have downloaded many recordings from this site and I vouch for their reliability and trustworthiness.

Next, I'd like to focus on what I consider to be Sanderling's unsung but mighty recordings.

I've already mentioned the Rachmaninov Rhapsody, the Borodin and the simply marvellous Poulenc. In the mid-sixties Sanderling recorded Bach keyboard concertos with the harpsichordist Hans Pischner, BWV 1052 to 1056. They are now on two Eterna discs, coupled with modern recordings of double and triple concertos. They received very short shrift in the English musical press, as did Sanderling's Leningrad recordings of Mozart's Jupiter and the Divertimento K334. I am now aiming directly at Gramophone, the musical review Bible in those days. In this journal Sanderling's Bach and Mozart was deemed 'old-fashioned'. I have just reheard the Mozart disc, and, yes, the tempi are slow, but every note is lovingly phrased, so much so in K334, that I became mesmerized by the beauty of the music.

In the Bach recordings with Pischner, the harpsichord is slightly recessed but what you get, especially in what is essentially the first very great Keyboard concerto in our literature - BWV 1052 - is simply outstanding string playing from the Berlin Symphony and a fantastic architectural layout of the orchestral detail. I recall getting to know this great concerto on a Heliodor LP and then hearing the Ashkenazi recording with George Malcolm and bursting out in laughter and exasperation at what Malcolm's orchestra had simply glossed over. The other concertos in these recordings are just as poignant and sincere and heartfelt as BWV1052.

Then there is the recording of Weber's two clarinet concertos. I became acquainted with this music on an Orfeo disc with Brunner and the Bamberg Symphony conducted by Caetani, a conductor I respect. Let's go to the opening movement of the first concerto. Caetani simply rushes it: it is after all a mere concerto, let's not tarry, get Brunner playing. Well, listen to how Sanderling phrases that same orchestral prelude. You hear the music in it. A similar things occurs in a DVD, available on YouTube, of Bronfmann playing the Saint-Saens Second Piano Concerto with the Berlin Phil. The last movement is just an orchestral scramble in most recordings as in Hough's, Gramophone Award-winning performance. Sanderling's orchestra plays the notes and it becomes music, not just a virtuosic scramble.

While I'm on the subject of Russian recordings, there's a simply marvellous Sanderling reading of Honegger's Fifth Symphony. It was made in either the late forties or the early fifties - available to download. I defy anyone to show me another recording that elucidates so much orchestral detail.

Then there are the Tchaikovsky Symphony recordings. DG recorded the completely UN-hysterical Fourth coupled with Mravinsky's 5 and 6 in mono days. Sanderling took 4 to 6 into the studio with the Berlin Symphony for Denon in the late 1970s. If you listen closely you hear what Tchaikovsky wrote: totally unsentimental, simply Tchaikovsky Symphonies 4-6.

My first acquaintance with Sanderling's art was via the Eurodisc set of the Brahms Symphonies, Tragic Overture and the Haydn Variations. Recorded in 1971 and 1972 with the Staatskapelle Dresden these recordings were very well received in the Penguin Guide and even Gramophone. When I bought them I had been a Klemperer Brahms man. I much preferred the Sanderling recordings, bar the second where I still lean in favour of Klemperer. These Sanderling recordings are with the Dresden Staatskapelle; Sanderling was Principal Conductor of this orchestra from 1964 until 1967.

Sanderling later recorded the Symphonies, Variations and Alto Rhapsody with the Berlin Symphony. These digital recordings were made in 1990 and released on Capriccio in 1992. By and large, this later set has been given short shrift on both sides of the English-speaking Atlantic world. The sound-world is warmer, richer, autumnal. Tempi are slower, almost monumental, the prototype for the late Celibidache style. I prefer the Dresden performance. By and large I still think analogue recordings sound better than digital but I love the Capriccio set as well, especially the Second, where I Sanderling achieves a much more integrated effect than in Dresden. I much prefer the Capriccio set to the Chailly and Mackerras cycles, but that's another story.

Sanderling also recorded the First Piano Concerto twice. The first time for Classics for Pleasure with Tirimo and the Philharmonia; the second time on Erato with Grimaud. The first movement in both recordings is monumental, massive, inexorable, like the magnificent Barbirolli/Barenboim on EMI. I've not been able to listen to the faster recordings since. For example Sawallisch sets out to get the Introduction over and done with so that Kovacevich can start playing. As for Eugen Jochum he seems to lose his way between the start and Gilels' hushed entrance.

My next encounter with Sanderling's recordings is a set he made with the Berlin Symphony of the six Haydn Paris Symphonies: 83-87. In an interview with John Hunt Sanderling said "Of all composers, I believe Haydn to be the most difficult to perform. Haydn is difficult for the orchestra to play, and it is difficult for the conductor to find the right emotions for the music. Most conductors play Haydn like a composer of earlier days, but he has to be played like a modern composer, as he liked to shock the audience. In his music one has to find the element of originality, as in modern music."

This set was recorded in 1972 and was released on CD in 1997 by RCA/BMG: 74321 34169 2. Beg, steal or borrow this 2 CD set. Go straight to the opening movement of Symphony 84. There is a beautifully articulated opening, brass prominent, then at 1:29 the main theme starts. Here Sanderling makes the music sound like the first rays of the morning sun bursting through the darkness and the clouds. The playing is so joyful, it simply puts a smile on your face. The other five symphonies are a joy to listen to and it's a shame not one English-speaking music critic has cottoned on to how great Sanderling's Haydn is. There is a later performance of Symphony 83 captured on a Berlin Philharmonic performance. It is coupled with the greatest recording of the greatest Shostakovich symphony, number 15. More on that later.

Perhaps the biggest surprise in Sanderling's discography - apart from the Poulenc and the Honegger and Martinu - is that Sanderling even knew about Sibelius, let alone conduct him. To be clear, Sibelius was definitely not on the German musical landscape in the 1920s and 1930s; much less so in the Soviet Union. Sanderling got to know the music of Sibelius in the 1950s before an engagement to conduct the Helsinki orchestra. He learnt to perform Sibelius from the scores. In other words, there was simply no performing tradition he could lean on, so to speak.

He recorded the Symphonies, En Saga, Nightride and Sunrise and Finlandia and a scene from Kuolema with the Berlin Symphony for Eurodisc from 1971 to 1979. These are available on Brilliant Classics. I've played them 'blind' to various acquaintances. One in particular, a self-styled Sibelius expert brought up on the Beecham-Kajanus tradition and in every case this particular listener preferred the Sanderling recordings. I recall most vividly his assertion that the opening of the Fourth should not be played to sound like Kol Nidrei, this music is cold, he said, then he said, 'Bah' when he heard Maazel's Vienna recording. That's exactly what it shouldn't sound like, he said.

Before I touch on the core of Sanderling's recorded repertoire, namely his Shostakovich, his Mahler, his Bruckner and his Beethoven, I'll mention other repertoire Sanderling covered.

Sanderling recorded little Prokofiev. There is a Russian recording of the Cello Symphony with Rostropovich, available in various Russian collections, the Violin Concertos with David Oistrakh, also the Stravinsky Violin Concerto issued on a 5 CD set on Harmonia Mundi Cat.HMX 2905255.59, a set which records Sanderling's last concert, given on 19 May 2002, a concert featuring the Brahms Haydn Variations, Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 24 and finishing with Schumann's Symphony No. 4. Included is a live Shostakovich 5 from 1966, and a stunning Shostakovich First Violin Concerto with Igor Oistrakh. As a treat there's also Wagner's Tristan Prelude from a concert given in April 1970. What is inexplicable about this set is that it includes an ordinary Shostakovich 10 and a Schubert Second Symphony conducted by David Oistrakh; go figure. This set is indispensable, in my opinion, just for the four violin concertos alone.

There's a recording of the Schumann Piano Concerto with Brendel on Philips, made with the Philharmonia in September 1997. As usual, the orchestral accompaniment is sober but astute and perceptive. Sanderling was a great accompanist, witness the Beethoven concertos with Uchida and Gilels. Best of all, is a Beethoven Fifth Concerto with Dieter Zechlin on Eterna 0020692BC. The orchestra is the Leipzig Gewandhaus and it was recorded in 1963. I mention this recording because another friend always urgently recommended the Fischer/Furtwängler recording of The Emperor. He used to say that Furtwängler's orchestral opening Allegro was so stupendous that Fischer must have felt like packing up and going home because nothing he could play would do justice to Furtwängler's opening ritornello. Well, I admit I always found Furtwängler's orchestral contribution a bit over-rated so one day I asked my wife to play five recordings 'blind' so that I had no idea which was which. One of them was the Furtwängler-Fischer. The clear winner was this Sanderling recording with Zechlin.

Dieter Barkhoff
October 2016



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