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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 9 in D Minor (1909-10)
NDR Sinfonieorchester/Kurt Sanderling
rec. December, 1987, Laeiszhalle, Hamburg. DDD
PROFIL PH17007 [79:40]

Kurt Sanderling made three studio recordings of this symphony. The later one from 1991 with the Philharmonia Orchestra is sometimes considered rather drab and lugubrious, while the second from 1979 with the BBC Philharmonic is generally agreed to be his best. Certainly that remains my favourite but this live recording from 1987 runs it close. The timings and Sanderling’s interpretative stance remain very similar in both, although the concluding Adagio is even more expansive here and the digital sound superior, despite this being recorded live; the audience remains virtually silent throughout.

Having now listened to this half a dozen times, I confess that my response quickly shifted from my first impressions, which were that Sanderling was rather dour and deliberate, to really appreciating his “slow burn” approach. He takes only eighty minutes over this symphony, which is fairly standard, and is not as dynamic, nor, paradoxically, as slow as three other favourite recordings from Tennstedt, Levine and Sinopoli, who respectively take five, ten and even fifteen minutes longer, but he exercises such judicious control over his building of cumulative tension that the final effects are overwhelming; the finale is simply glorious. There is none of the nervy fidgeting with phrases which I find irritating in this grand work, just a steady progress towards release then dissolution.

In many ways, comments I made in a previous review elsewhere regarding the BBC recording equally apply here; I observed that. “As the last ethereal note died away after I first listened to this recording, I realised that I had little to say about it beyond the fact that it is essentially a perfect account of this great symphony…. There is an ease, a fluency, a clarity and detail about [it] which is typical of Sanderling's no-nonsense adherence to the score…it all simply flows naturally from one section to another and is melded into a wholly satisfying entity. Sanderling is really released and rumbustious in the Burleske movement and transcendent in his concentration during the Adagio.”

Sanderling also repeats the feat he achieved with the BBC Philharmonic, of bringing out the best in an orchestra not necessarily ranked with the world’s best but playing like one for a conductor they obviously love. The playing here is virtually flawless, if just occasionally a little soft-edged where a tad more bite is desirable. The strings and brass are wonderfully secure and confident, although, again, some might prefer more of the emotional charge and even indulgence in phrasing of the kind Barbirolli secures in his wonderful recording with the BPO, made in the Jesus-Christuskirche, Berlin, in 1964. The essence of Sanderling’s approach is one of noble restraint gradually released. There is no one way to play this marvellous music and Sanderling’s way with it is indubitably both valid and effective; in this regard, he perhaps most resembles Giulini in the integrity and dedication of his conducting.

A minor correction to an error in the booklet: the recording location should be spelt “Laeiszhalle” with an “s”, not “Laiezhalle”.

Ralph Moore



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