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Kurt Sanderling: The uneasy elegance of Haydn and Mozart

Kurt Sanderling (1912-2011) left us long after we thought he did.

The conductor who spent much of his life sealed off behind the Iron Curtain, whether in the former Soviet Union or East Germany, died Sept. 17 a few days before his 99th birthday without orchestras clamoring to capture his swan song or Japanese recording companies taping one Bruckner symphony after another hoping to get the deathbed performance. Sanderling certainly had late in life recognition with some good years conducting in England and, quite improbably, in Los Angeles. Recently re-issued recordings were mostly Bruckner, Mahler and Sibelius.

A less-fragmentary view of what had to be a 70-year career opened up a few weeks previous during a single-day visit to Dresden, where Sanderling made numerous recordings with the great Dresden Staatskapelle. During that East German period, his Das Lied von der Erde recording, hardly known in the U.S., has achieved enough classic status that it was accorded a recent reissue on custom-made vinyl, and in all its fearlessly craggy grandeur, certainly deserves it. His grand old man years with big-symphony repertoire were all the more interesting for not being blessed by the usual Olympian serenity. Sanderling projected the troubled visions of Mahler and Bruckner with unflinching grittiness.

I pretty much knew that before I put on my running shoes on that brilliantly sunny afternoon in Dresden when I went running along the Elbe. If there’s a wrong side of the river, I found it in the funky neighborhoods full of working-class grocery stores, graffiti painted streets and shops selling all manner of smoking paraphernalia as well as – guess what? – used LP records. In one such shop, I came out with Sanderling conducting Haydn, prompted by a perverse curiosity as to what a great musical made of these great symphonies in the generations before historically-informed performances. Works included Symphonies 82 and 86 with the Berliner Sinfonie Orchester on Eterna plus 104 and 45 with the Dresden Staatskapelle on Deutsche Grammophon. Listening more dispassionately than elegaically (I mistakenly thought Sanderling had died years ago), I realized these are among the most boldly re-imagined Haydn performances on disc.

The weight of the world unfolds in the slow introductions to the first movements, but not in ways that become lugubrious. Symphony No. 104 begins with a combination of grandeur and tragedy, with a sonority that’s certainly Haydnesque but has that Shostakovichian suggestion that such grandeur has dangerous outcomes. Having arrived in Moscow in 1936, Sanderling certainly saw such outcomes first hand. The first movement is a shade slower than another pre-historically-informed-performance Haydn conductor, Eugen Jochum, but move with a more confident gait, so much that the music seems unstoppable, bordering on implacable. From there, harmonic relationships and bursts of rhythmic energy that I haven’t heard anywhere else surface repeatedly. This usually sunny music also has dark clouds on the horizon, giving the symphony a distinctive texture that never feel imposed upon the music.

I shouldn’t have been surprised. Another acquisition from this trip was Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 15 with the Berlin Philharmonic that deftly walks fine lines between triviality and profundity, irony and steely directness – while going to extremes in all directions. For years, I’ve owned and enjoyed a Russian-language LP of The Marriage of Figaro conducted by Sanderling in 1948 starring Natasha Rozhdestvenskaya (mother of conductor Gennady Rozdestvensky). Mitsuko Uchida, who champioined the aging Sanderling so much that she recorded the Beethoven piano concertos with him, coveted the disc, and though I made her a taped copy, I resisted the temptation to just give the LP set to her. Returning to it tonight, the set remained a thoroughly satisfying, dramatically committed, but nimble, stylish Mozartean performance that requires no handicaps for its age or for being sung in Russian.  It’s among the most elegant Figaro performances on record.

So personal is Sanderling’s Mozart and Haydn, so laden with subtext is this music in his hands, his performances have a monologue quality. He’s speaking to us through the music. Mahler and Shostakovich performances often seem that way whether the conductors are young or old. Rarely is such subtext heard in classical-era repertoire. No doubt Sanderling was one of the few in that time and place with such musical sympathies. Yevgeny Mravinsky got away with classical-era repertoire. Mstislav Rostropovich, as a conductor, succeeded in making it dry and brittle. Those conductors make a good case for the kind of quality control that comes with historically-informed performance. But Sanderling’s deep rapport with the music renders the more factual aspects of performance practice unnecessary – and did so as a voice in the wilderness.That alone qualifies him for classical music sainthood.

Comments

  1. KINH THỦ LĂNG NGHIÊM
    KINH THỦ LĂNG NGHIÊM
    Tôi nghe như vầy: Lúc bấy giờ tại tịnh xá Kỳ Hoàn thành Thất La Phiệt, Đức Phật và chúng Đại Tỳ Kheo một ngàn hai trăm năm mươi vị, đều là Đại A La Hán, đã ra khỏi luân hồi
    Tôi nghe như vầy: Lúc bấy giờ tại tịnh xá Kỳ Hoàn thành Thất La Phiệt, Đức Phật và chúng Đại Tỳ Kheo một ngàn hai trăm năm mươi vị, đều là Đại A La Hán, đã ra khỏi luân hồi
    Lúc bấy giờ, Quán Thế Âm Bồ Tát liền đứng dậy, đảnh lễ bạch Phật:

    – Con nhớ khi xưa, từ vô số hằng sa kiếp trước có Phật Quán Thế Âm ra đời, con phát tâm Bồ Đề nơi Phật ấy, Phật dạy con từ Văn, Tư, Tu nhập Tam Ma Địa (Văn, Tư, Tu là Văn nơi tai, Tư nơi Tâm, Tu nơi Hạnh).
    Lúc bấy giờ, Quán Thế Âm Bồ Tát liền đứng dậy, đảnh lễ bạch Phật:

    – Con nhớ khi xưa, từ vô số hằng sa kiếp trước có Phật Quán Thế Âm ra đời, con phát tâm Bồ Đề nơi Phật ấy, Phật dạy con từ Văn, Tư, Tu nhập Tam Ma Địa (Văn, Tư, Tu là Văn nơi tai, Tư nơi Tâm, Tu nơi Hạnh).
    Nam mô tát đát tha tô già đa da a ra ha đế tam miệu tam bồ đà tỏa. Tát đát tha Phật đà cu tri sắc ni san.

    Nam mô tát bà bột đà bột địa, tát đa bệ tệ.
    Nam mô tát đát tha tô già đa da a ra ha đế tam miệu tam bồ đà tỏa. Tát đát tha Phật đà cu tri sắc ni san.

    Nam mô tát bà bột đà bột địa, tát đa bệ tệ.
    KINH THIÊN THỦ THIÊN NHÃN
    QUÁN THẾ ÂM BỒ TÁT QUẢNG ÐẠI VIÊN MÃN
    ĐẠI BI TÂM ÐÀ LA NI
    KINH THIÊN THỦ THIÊN NHÃN
    QUÁN THẾ ÂM BỒ TÁT QUẢNG ÐẠI VIÊN MÃN
    ĐẠI BI TÂM ÐÀ LA NI
    Như thế tôi nghe, một thời đức Phật Thích Ca Mâu Ni (2) ngự nơi đạo tràng Bảo Trang Nghiêm
    Như thế tôi nghe, một thời đức Phật Thích Ca Mâu Ni (2) ngự nơi đạo tràng Bảo Trang Nghiêm
    Quán Thế Âm Bồ Tát
    Quán Thế Âm Bồ Tát
    Nam mô hắc ra đát na đá ra dạ gia. Nam mô a rị gia bà lô kiết đế thước bát ra da. Bồ đề tát đỏa bà gia. Ma ha tát đỏa bà gia. Ma ha ca lô ni ca da, án. Tát bàn ra phạt duệ. Số đát na đát tỏa. Nam mô tất kiết lật đỏa y mông a rị gia bà lô kiết đế thất phật ra lăng bà đà.
    Nam mô hắc ra đát na đá ra dạ gia. Nam mô a rị gia bà lô kiết đế thước bát ra da. Bồ đề tát đỏa bà gia. Ma ha tát đỏa bà gia. Ma ha ca lô ni ca da, án. Tát bàn ra phạt duệ. Số đát na đát tỏa. Nam mô tất kiết lật đỏa y mông a rị gia bà lô kiết đế thất phật ra lăng bà đà.

  2. Check out Sanderling’s Shostakovich 15th with the Cleveland Orchestra (recorded for Erato). One of the most haunting performances of any music that I have ever heard…

  3. Both recordings are very close to my heart. The Cleveland recording was the one that introduced me to the miracles of the 15th. And later I was lucky enough to attend the concert where the Berlin recording was made. One of the greatest experiences I have ever had in a concert. I remember reading an interview with Daniel Barenboim where he said that it was in a rehearsal for that concert where he understood for the first time what this music was about. This captures, in my view, pretty well the value of both recordings: The 15th might be full of enigmas – but everything feels completely right when Sanderling conducts.

    • For those of us who weren’t breathing the same air as Shostakovich, the 15th symphony is indeed tough. Eugene Ormandy, who conducted the U.S. premiere, seems not to have gotten it at all. Thank goodness for conductors who know when they not only have to project the notes of the music, but the entire culture behind it.
      I’ve been talking to Gramophone about writing the complete discography of the Nielsen 6th. Speaking of enigmas…..dps

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