Farewell to “the last great conductor”

So says the Berliner Morgenpost in its obituary for Kurt Sanderling, who died yesterday, just two days short of his 99th birthday.  And the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung calls him “the last of a great generation,” the “Nestor” of east German conductors.   Nothing yet from any English-language newspapers.

The obituaries understandably dwell upon his extraordinary personal history.  While most fleeing the Nazis went west, he went east.  He became co-conductor of the peerless Leningrad Philharmonic alongside Mravinsky, and a close friend of Shostakovich.  But Sanderling refused to exploit his past.  “I don’t like to make myself look great through my contact with a man of true greatness.”

Instead, his insights were largely reserved for rehearsal, placed at the service of the music–with often shattering results.  “Others make history; I make music.” His way with Shostakovich’s enigmatic Fifteenth Symphony is a perfect example.

The first movement of the Fifteenth (listen here) seems flippantly childlike, but with an undercurrent of desolation, and the unmistakable quotations of Rossini’s William Tell Overture only heighten the unease.  Sanderling unravels the riddle.  Shostakovich…

…spoke of ‘childhood memories,’ even of a ‘toy shop’ in the first movement; this is in fact appropriate, but in a quite different, dreadful sense. In this ‘shop’ there are only soulless dead puppets hanging on their strings which do not come to life until the strings are pulled. This first movement is something quite dreadful for me: soullessness composed into music, the emotional emptiness in which people lived under the dictatorship of the time.

After the outright despair of the second movement, and more mordant sarcasm in the third, the fourth builds to a bitter climax, and subsides in some of the most arresting sonorities Shostakovich ever wrote: an almost dance-like, machine-like clicking and clacking of percussion and woodwind as if a clock is winding down (here starting at 45:48).  Sanderling:

At the end when the percussion starts twittering and chirping, I always think of the intensive-care ward in a hospital: the person is attached to various contraptions and the dials and screens indicate that heartbeat and brain activity are gradually expiring. Then comes a vast convulsion and it’s all over. The listeners feel this too, or something like it, and are very shaken.

To me, Sanderling’s first recording of the Fifteenth realizes the sound-world of this work as well as anyone–astringent timbres and a slow burn of energy that comes from within, nothing frenetic or rushed.

Sanderling was in no way a flashy interpreter.  His tempi were often slower than the norm; he carefully balanced the orchestral choirs and emphasized articulation rather than letting the brass rip or smothering everything in strings.  On first hearing, some of his recordings can seem subdued.  Listen more closely, and that slow burn is every bit as compelling as more volatile or virtuosic readings, holding power in reserve for the right moment.

All of this seems of a piece with a man who eschewed celebrity and knew his limits; unlike most conductors who keep working until they have to be carried from the podium, he retired in 2002.  Despite his relationship with Shostakovich, he did not conduct the Thirteenth or Fourteenth Symphonies because his son Thomas had introduced them to Germany, and he didn’t want to get in his way.  The authors of the Berliner Morgenpost tribute give another example of Sanderling’s humility, relating a comment made on one of their last visits, long after his retirement:

“So, if you tell anyone, I’m working on Beethoven’s Ninth, and I’m checking myself to see if I previously did it correctly.  When I look at the score, the music that is in my head must now be sufficient . . . And the results are quite surprising.”

–The Highly Opinionated Companion

Further reading and listening: extracts of interviews are here (on a website maintained by one of the partisans in the Shostakovich wars).  A revealing interview is here (German only; Google Translate makes a mess of this one).  Sanderling’s recorded legacy is rich, dominated by a series of marvelous recordings on the Berlin Classics label (notably a Sibelius cycle, Shostakovich 1, 5, 6, 8, 10, 15, and Mahler 9, 10, and Das Lied).  Add to that live Bruckner (the Fourth and an excellent Seventh) on Hänssler Classic, a benchmark Brahms cycle with the Staatskapelle Dresden, a terrific live Mahler 9 with the BBC Philharmonic, and the 1950s recordings with the Leningrad Philharmonic, such as Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony and Tchaikovsky’s Fourth.

About thousandfoldecho

Everyone likes classical music. Not everyone knows it yet.
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