Tribute to Kurt Sanderling from ICA Classics

KURT SANDERLING (1912-2011)  – a great maestro

BRUCKNER – Symphony No.3 in D Minor (CD)

Kurt Sanderling (conductor) / BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra

(recorded Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 1978 – the disc also includes an interview with Kurt Sanderling)

CD ICAC 5005

SCHUMANN – Symphony No.4 in D Minor / MAHLER – Das Lied von der Erde (DVD)

Kurt Sanderling (conductor) / BBC Philharmonic Orchestra

Soloists: Carolyn Watkinson (mezzo-soprano) / John Mitchinson (tenor)

(recorded Royal Albert Hall, London, 1988


Available from ICA Classics at

Kurt Sanderling, who died last year in Berlin at the age of 98, was a name known to me from my formative days of record-collecting, through his 1950s recording made with the Leningrad Phllharmonic of Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony – one of those early cotton-stitched white-and-yellow panelled Deutsche Grammophon LP covers with the composer’s facsimile autograph scribbled across the central vertical yellow panel (all very tasteful and esoteric, obviously aimed at the “discerning” record buyer of the time).

Sanderling worked with the legendary Yevgeny Mravinsky as assistant conductor of the Leningrad orchestra for eighteen years, from 1942 until 1960, when he took on the task of rebuilding the Berlin Symphony Orchestra, returning to the country he had left in 1936 because of his Jewish ancestry. As well, he became for a number of years conductor-in-chief of the Dresden Staatskapelle. But it wasn’t until 1970 that he first conducted in the UK, developing a relationship with the Philharmonia Orchestra after he deputized at a concert for an indisposed Otto Klemperer, and then in 1975 appearing for the first time with the then BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra (later renamed the BBC Philharmonic). He conducted the latter group often, making his Proms debut with them in 1982 with Mahler’s Ninth Symphony.

In 1981 Sanderling made his only visit to New Zealand, conducting the NZSO on a couple of occasions, most notably in Brahms and Shostakovich, of which I saw and heard the former concert (I wish I’d heard the Shostakovich as well, which drew forth clusters of superlatives from the local critics).  I well remember the imposing, authoritative figure on the podium in the Town Hall, head held high, magisterial glances and flowing gestures holding the players in thrall and producing from them glorious sounds throughout the Brahms First Symphony. Interestingly, it was Sanderling’s ability to get first-rate sounds out of orchestras not quite in the top rank that was a significant feature of several of the many tributes I read after his death – and my memory of the NZSO concert he conducted certainly confirmed that judgement.

Now, thanks to the new audio and audiovisual ICA Classics label (go visit the label’s website at to get an idea of the riches being made available) two previously unreleased “live” recordings of Sanderling’s work as a conductor have appeared, an audio-only of Bruckner’s Third Symphony and a DVD of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, both with the BBC Philharmonic. I’d not previously encountered any of the conductor’s Bruckner, but had heard the 1981 BBC Mahler Ninth with the same orchestra – so I was delighted upon hearing both of the new recordings that Sanderling seemed as much at home with those big, rolling Brucknerian symphonic paragraphs as Das Lied’s more overtly varied, coloristic and volatile Mahlerian outpourings.

I began my listening with Bruckner, a performance of the Third Symphony recorded in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in April 1978 (presented here on ICAC 5005) at which time Sanderling had been a guest conductor with the orchestra over three seasons. The interpretation is strongly-etched, both energetic and supple, suggesting that the rapport between conductor and players was a well-established one. There’s a Klemperer-like strength and grain to the tones and textures, a straightforwardness to the big, Brucknerian rhetorical gestures, such as the declamatory unison which caps the symphony’s very first crescendo. Sanderling keeps it all moving, as if obeying some kind of primordial pulse beneath the music’s surface, the steadiness having a cumulative, organic effect entirely avoiding any kind of rigidity.

Even if one is occasionally reminded that we aren’t listening to the Vienna Philharmonic or the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, there’s a far more cherishable sense of experiencing music-making that doesn’t deliver a glib or mechanical phrase. There are one or two momentary ensemble glitches – the strings have a less-than unanimous moment at the beginning of the development section, for example – but the playing is every bit as good as one might expect from a live concert, and the brass in particular are, in my opinion, superb.

Between the movements the microphones are left on, allowing the audience atmosphere to register and preserving a “live” continuity throughout the work. Again, there’s a beautiful unhurriedness about the playing in the slow movement, suggesting, in between evocations of elemental grandeur, long-breathed natural undulations doing their thing and encouraging the listener to connect with the music’s ebb and flow. What one realizes at the movement’s end is how Sanderling has build up the tensions and concentrated feelings of the sounds right throughout, investing the last few pages with a truly valedictory feeling, the horns’ held notes at the end the stuff of planets and stars – this is conducting and playing that feels to me as though it properly “owns” the music.

The scherzo’s pointed urgencies are put across with plenty of stamping girth, the earthiness of the playing carrying over into the trio, putting the countryman in dancing clothes and holding his rough edges temporarily in check. There’s an even greater contrast at the finale’s beginning, where we get playing of dangerous whirling exuberance, whose energies gradually give way to the insinuations of the ländler, one decorated by a chorale-like theme on the brass (Bruckner described this episode once as “life’s gaiety standing side-by-side with death”). Sanderling gets the orchestra to play the unsettling, syncopated second subject theme with tremendous power and agitation, as he does the recapitulation of the opening, with its chromatic variants that sound so like the final pages of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung, when the River Rhine overflows its banks. Everything – the reprise of the Ländler, its interruption by the jagged syncopations, the magnificent lead-back to the symphony’s opening theme (triumphantly in the major key, with the brass again playing their hearts out) has a compelling inevitability. The audience’s applause is thunderous – and rightly so!

Abruptly, we are taken to an interview with Sanderling at the symphony’s end, a fascinating ten-minute picture of a musician whose authority and clear-sightedness comes across in his speech as unequivocally as his music-making. He speaks of his early years in Germany, his early experiences as a repetiteur at the Berlin State Opera, of his admiration for Otto Klemperer during those times, of his having to leave because of his Jewish ancestry, and his departure for Russia, leading to his first conducting experiences and his subsequent collaboration with Evgeny Mravinsky in Leningrad. He talks about Haydn and Shostakovich and Mahler, and has interesting things to say about all three, including the latter’s “triumvirate” of musical farewells. Interviewer Piers Burton-Page chooses his questions well and allows Sanderling plenty of room to give his answers sufficient breadth and depth.

ICA scores equally well with the Sanderling DVD presentation, which, in addition to Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, features the Schumann Fourth Symphony from the same Proms concert, in July 1988 (incidentally, more than ten years after the Bruckner CD performance). Watching Sanderling at work confirms what one heard on the Bruckner CD, the conductor’s confidence and authority inspiring powerful and committed playing from his orchestra players, though not in a martinet-like way, as was the style of his great mentor at Leningrad, Mravinsky. Like his own hero, Klemperer, Sanderling at work looks formidable, but he’s also animated and expressive in places, giving as much the impression of coaxing what he wants from his players as imposing on them a determined will.

The Schumann Symphony leaps from the players’ instruments with a will – not surprisingly, there’s a Klemperer-like steadiness about it all, a dark, brooding introduction and a powerful, clearly-articulated allegro, the music’s exuberance breaking out in the movement’s coda to exhilarating effect. I liked Sanderling’s underlining of the continuities between the movements, each luftpause enough to gather both breath and strength before the music plunges into a new episode without lack of continuity. Sanderling gives his players time and space to float the slow movement’s phrases across the bar-lines to wondrously lyrical effect, the trio graced by some sensitive solo playing from the orchestra’s leader. I liked the players’ pointing of the Scherzo rhythms – plenty of tonal “girth” in this dance, set against the trio’s graceful and gossamer difference, the latter leading to the finale’s grandly ritualistic introduction, filled with strength and inevitability. Though lacking the last ounce of physical excitement, the cumulative effect of Sanderling’s direction invests the work’s ending with thrilling power and purpose.

As for Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, it’s a performance that reaches out and grasps the music’s greatness, with everybody, soloists, orchestra and conductor completely caught up in the intensities generated through the composer’s fusion of music with his chosen texts. Both soloists are wonderful, tenor John Mitchinson a winning combination of philosopher, poet and inebriate, and Baroque specialist mezzo Carolyn Watkinson giving us a touchingly vulnerable view of the world’s beauties and disappointments. She’s perhaps a shade dry-eyed and distant in the closing stages of the “Abschied”, an approach that rivets one’s attention without overtly tugging at the heartstrings. Also, to my ears, she occasionally phrases ever-so-fractionally under the note, though never in a way that gives rise to serious alarm – what’s of paramount importance is her whole-heartedness, her investing of each phrase with meaning and involvement. Sanderling and the orchestral players support their singers with both solo and ensembles lines of great beauty and sharply-wrought focus, making every description of time, place and emotion a meaningful one. The camera-work is excellent, as it was throughout the Schumann symphony, balancing the overall with the specific to great effect, and giving a sense of everybody’s contributions to things which truly reflects the nature of a concerted effort on behalf of the music.

One comes from both experiences of Sanderling’s work here, audio and visual, with a sense of having encountered greatness. For most people music exists as sound rather than on the printed page, making the performer an essential component of that combination which produces great performance art. Sanderling and his musicians deliver the music’s greatness in all cases, to splendid and satisfying effect. I, for one, am now anxious to explore more of ICA’s issues, on both DVD and CD – this, for me, couldn’t have been a better introduction to the company’s catalogues.


Standard continues to rise at New Zealand Opera School at Whanganui

Great Opera Moments 2012

New Zealand Opera School, Final concert

Royal Wanganui Opera House

Friday 13 January, 7.30pm

The 18th New Zealand Opera School at Whanganui has most of the things going for it that make some of the great music festival of Europe such lasting attractions: all it needs is a real festival to give it context.  Excellent music is performed by many talented and some highly polished musicians, in an old theatre that has been taken care of over the decades, in a city that was one of the earliest to be settled by Europeans, which has been spared too much latter-day growth that is usually accompanied by philistine destruction of what previous generations created; and yet it has developed an attractive, traditional main commercial street with plenty of cafes and restaurants, even at least one excellent little book shop.

And there are things to do during the day: one of the best provincial art galleries in New Zealand and an excellent museum; the river that till recently supplied minor shipping facilities, with a real paddle steamer that runs regular trips upstream or offers a river road with interesting Maori sites including the village of Jerusalem. A few miles north-west is the well-preserved homestead at Bushy Park with its fine native forest reserve.

This concert is almost always the first event of the year in my calendar, and it has always been a highlight for me – I think I have been to every one since it started.

In recent years the final concert has taken the form of a series of scenes cobbled together by finding linking elements in the various arias and ensembles that participants have sung.

Once again, Sara Brodie was on hand to make as much theatrical sense as possible out of hugely disparate operatic elements.  This time the theme was the opera school itself: with most of the 24 singers on stage, watching, being coached, dealing with the odd misunderstanding or dispute, as comedy elements in which the school’s director, Donald Trott, played an occasional role.

Recent schools have also succeeded in making their presence felt in the city through the work of the local volunteers and sponsors of Wanganui Opera Week (WOW), which present many concerts and recitals during the ten days, at Wanganui Collegiate School (where the school takes place) and elsewhere in the city.

After the traditional karakia, the ensemble took the stage with the Westphalia Chorale from Bernstein’s Candide. This itself presented an impressive display of the way a disparate collection of voices can be assembled in a chorus that could grace many a professional opera performance, individual voices audible, but in a way that heightened the impact and attractiveness. All the work of chorus master Michael Vinten.

Candide supplied the first solo item – Dr Pangloss’s sanguine assurance, ‘Best of all possible worlds’, sung by the one singer in suit and tie, Kieran Rayner: his assurance, clear diction and stylishness matched his attire.

Rayner returned in the second half to sing another aria from the English language repertoire: Billy Budd’s tragic acceptance of his fate in Britten’s opera, that gained its pathos with a voice of great naturalness and expressiveness; there is particular quality in his upper register.

The first of two numbers from Mozart’s Der Schauspieldirektor (The Impresario) was the trio between the two vying divas (Amina Edris and Imogen Thirlwall) and their impresario, Oliver Sewell. It’s a piece that seems to presage the flamboyant later style of Rossini and Donizetti, and they carried it off with real conviction.

Amina and Imogen returned later for two arias from the later era: ‘Ah, non credea…’ and ‘Ah! Non giunge’ from La Sonnambula. The first lacked a little of the brilliance that was more evident in the more familiar show-piece, ‘Ah! Non giunge’.

After the Mozart trio came two arias by Handel. The first, ‘Tornami a vagheggiar’ from Alcina (shortly to be produced by Opera in a Days Bay Garden in Wellington), became famous in Sutherland’s performance, and soprano Ella Smith showed a good understanding of the Handelian style. Baritone Anthony Schneider then sang from Orlando, ‘Sorge infausta’, with a sturdy, attractive voice; my ear was caught in this by the delightfully fluent playing of his accompanist, Somi Kim.

The highlight among the three Handel offerings however was from the remarkable counter-tenor, Stephen Diaz, who made such an impact in 2011. Now he sang, towards the end of the concert, from Serse (one of New Zealand Opera’s last year), ‘Se bramate d’amar’, His performance was again commanding in its presentation and overwhelming in the sheer beauty of the voice and the artistry that he has developed; no little contribution came from David Kelly’s accompaniment that was always agile, alert and tasteful.

Claire Filer moved the scene forward by round 130 years to Gounod’s Faust, in the trouser role of Siébel: ‘Faites-lui les aveux’, making play with the flowers that have been the victim of Méphistophélès’s curse.

Bellini’s I Puritani provided a splendid vehicle for what proved to be one of the most imposing voices of the evening – Moses Mackay. His performance of ‘Ah! Per sempre’ was arresting and his Italian had both real flair and clarity.

Amelia Ryman came on stage to sing Elvira’s great aria, ‘Mi tradi’ from Don Giovanni, swinging crutches. It was not till later that I could relax my efforts to ascribe them to some arcane interpretation, being told that she had suffered an accident, yet was determined to carry on. That proved thoroughly justified; her intonation is precise and she sings with great assurance.

Emma Newman also sang Mozart – the Countess’s ‘Porgi amor’ from The Marriage of Figaro. Here, her props – a bed roll and orange kit bag – did not really explain themselves to me; if her dynamics were not very interesting, her singing was well projected, accurate and emotionally involved.

Other Mozart offerings came from Isabella Moore, Elizabeth Mandeno,  and Emma Fraser. Isabella’s aria was from the other principal soprano in Don Giovanni, Donna Anna’s ‘Or sai chi l’onore’ which she got inside emphatically, if without great subtlety.

Elizabeth Mandeno opened the second part – Act II – with the one well-known (and ‘startlingly beautiful’ in the words of one writer) aria from the unfinished opera Zaïde: ‘Ruhe sanft mein holdes Leben’, given its modern popularity by Kiri Te Kanawa. It is Zaide’s first aria, sung to the sleeping Gomatz, the newly captured slave of a sultan. Elizabeth’s voice captured (ha ha) the rapturous emotion with a ringing, rather beautiful voice, and her light turquoise chiffon dress suggested the sensuality of a sultan’s harem.

Emma Fraser sang the last solo item in the concert, ‘Ach, ich liebte’ from Die Entführung aus dem Serail. Her striking, insistent delivery captured Constanze’s determination to remain true to her betrothed most persuasively.

There were several Verdi pieces too.

The first, from Tavis Gravatt was Fiesco’s lament for his dead daughter in the Prologue to Simon Boccanegra, ‘Il lacerato spirito’. Tavis, in a dark cloak, presented it dramatically, capturing rather well the complex character of Simon’s antagonist.

Act I ended with the famous chorus from Nabucco, ‘Va, pensiero’, another chance to relish the emotional punch that the 24 voices delivered.

Amitai Pati’s baritonal tenor, rich and polished, invested Alfredo’s Act II aria, ‘Dei miei bollenti spiriti’, from La Traviata, with a mixture of the untroubled rapture he feels with a touch of unease; his Italian sounded like a native, both distinct and unaffected.

Another sample of less familiar Verdi came from Bryony Williams, singing ‘Ernani, Ernani, involami’ (from the eponymous opera) the recitative is followed by a charming waltz-rhythm aria, which was both emphatic and pretty; although her voice projects almost too strongly, her diction was not as clear as it might have been.

And the final Verdi item was Azucena’s ‘Stride la vampa’ from Il Trovatore, sung by the impressive Elisha Fai-Hulton, with a voice that is firmly placed and true, making vivid dramatic sense of the extraordinary tale she tells.

Returning to items in the first part of the concert, two Puccini arias paved the way to one of the best known pieces from Menotti’s The Consul.

In Mimi’s aria in Act III of La Bohème, ‘Donde lieta’, Bernice Austin, her voice occasionally lacking control at the top, caught much of the pathos and anguish that Mimi expresses.

Angelique MacDonald’s aria was Liu’s simple, poignant declaration of her faithful love for Calaf, in Turandot; clothed in pure white, she displayed a voice that was polished and carefully managed, though it thinned a little at the top; her soft notes were particularly affecting.

Menotti is more often represented by Monica’s aria in The Medium; but here, Christina Orgias sang ‘To this we’ve come’ from The Consul, one of the crisis points in the chilling story of bureaucratic indifference. The demands in intensity and emotional extremity she handled well (even if Menotti extends the experience a little excessively), following the meaning with her intelligent variation of dynamics and colour.

Another American work, much less familiar, was chosen by Bridget Costello: the 1956 opera, The Ballad of Baby Doe, by Douglas Moore. Her voice is not large, but she delineated her complex emotions in the letter scene with mature  insight, rather successfully.

Nineteenth century opera occupied the rest of the programme.

The famous tenor aria, ‘Je crois entendre encore’, sung by Nadir in The Pearl Fishers was delivered by Oliver Sewell, lying on his back. That may have led to a slight nasal quality and to his voice thinning at the top, but it was an attractive and understanding performance.

Tom Atkins sang ‘Una furtiva lagrima’ from L’elisir d’amore; a promising tenor, though perhaps he didn’t quite capture its show-stopper character by overdoing the expressive intensity; for Nemorino, it represents a moment of wonderment, as he hardly dares to believe what he sees.

Also from the bel canto era was Rossini’s most famous female aria, ‘Una voce poco fa’ (The Barber of Seville), which Bianca Andrew sang with the help of a particularly witty accompaniment by Bruce Greenfield. (In addition to the pianists mentioned in the text, others contributed admirably: Iola Shelley, Greg Neil, Travis Baker, Grace Francis and Flavio Villani). Here was a very attractive mezzo voice that struck just the right balance between superb self-confidence and lovable charm. Hers is a voice that is even right across its range, and capable of varied colour, timbre and dynamics.

The concert ended as it had begun, with ensemble pieces from Candide: ‘Universal good’, and finally a further appearance by Amitai Pati and Emma Fraser as Candide and Cunegonde respectively, singing the classic cop-out finale, in ‘Make our garden grow’, instead of a more cynical and ethically realistic denouement.

In the circumstances, it was a heart-warming way to end a splendidly devised, produced and executed concert.

Tutors at the school were Professor Paul Farringdon (this was his seventh appearance), Margaret Medlyn, Barry Mora, Richard Greager, with Italian language tutor Luca Manghi and performance assistant Kararaina Walker.

Yet a tinge of sadness lingers, that so many gifted and accomplished singers (not to mention musicians in every other sphere) emerge from our universities and academies, to face such limited opportunities in professional music in their own country, let alone the rest of the world, faced with the utterly inadequate acknowledgement and support from the only realistic source of funding for the major performing arts – the Government.