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.


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