A fine achievement and I’m delighted to see it restored to general circulation.
The great German conductor, Kurt Sanderling (b.1912) retired from conducting in 2002. Among his many admirers is Sir Simon Rattle so it’s quite interesting that this live Sanderling recording of Mahler’s last fully completed symphony should appear almost contemporaneously with Rattle’s superb new account.
I had assumed that this was the first time this recording had been issued, although I was aware that Sanderling had made two commercial recordings of the work, one in the late 1970s with the Berlin Symphony Orchestra and one for Erato in the early 1990s with the Philharmonia. It was only after I’d finished listening to it andRead more I searched the web for catalogue details of those performances that I discovered that this present traversal has been available before, on the old BBC Radio Classics label. Moreover, in that original incarnation it was praised by my colleague, Tony Duggan, in his survey of recordings of the Ninth. I have not heard the aforementioned Philharmonia performance, which is now deleted, but I see from his review that Tony admired that recording less than this one with the BBC Philharmonic. I was very pleased to find that Tony felt as enthusiastic about this current version as I do though we find different things in the performance.
Those who prefer an emotionally charged approach to this work – and it’s a valid way to look at it – will probably be lukewarm about this performance. At first hearing it sounds sober, even detached. But Mahler’s Ninth is a profound work of art and it reveals itself in many ways. For me, this Sanderling reading is objective, noble and patient and, above all, it’s a reading of great integrity. That’s a combination of qualities that brings its own rewards in this work. In some ways, and especially in its integrity and determination to let the music speak for itself, it reminds me of Giulini’s fine, patrician reading with the Chicago Symphony on DG (see review).
The huge and complex first movement begins gently, almost tentatively. Is it my imagination or has Sanderling encouraged a hint of East European timbre in the little horn motif ? (0:17) In the first couple of minutes the music has a singing, bitter-sweet feel that I find very attractive. From 2:03, however, there’s much more ardour yet the first big climax (2:54) sounds noble rather than angst-laden.
One feature of this movement, and indeed of the whole performance, is that Sanderling and the BBC engineers achieve excellent balance within the orchestra. The string lines are accorded their rightful position in the sound spectrum and the brass and woodwind sections come over clearly without excessive dominance. The percussion section is nicely balanced – listen out for the tam-tam. The horns are given a fair, but not excessive, degree of prominence but that’s abundantly justified both by Mahler’s writing and by the splendid playing of the BBC Phil’s horn section. Some may feel that the harp is a bit too forward in the balance during the first movement but the instrument is a crucial element in the scoring of this movement and I’m delighted to hear it register so well.
As the first movement unfolds Sanderling never wears his heart on his sleeve but I don’t feel he short changes the listener. The emotion is kept in perspective in a thoroughly musical reading. In a word, the performance is controlled. When the big moments arrive Sanderling and his players have ample power but it’s the more subtly scored pages that really catch my ear, especially since the BBC Phil members are playing out of their skins for their distinguished guest conductor. When we reach the coda (23:07) the mood is wistfully nostalgic as a very thoughtful and satisfying account of this towering movement comes to a close.
There’s a good lift to the rhythms at the start of the second movement, which Sanderling takes at a relatively brisk basic tempo. At times the music sounds quite genial and the true mood of a ländler is well conveyed. Sanderling seems to relish Mahler’s sardonic wit yet, once again, he refuses to overplay his hand. In his hands the movement functions as a kind of interlude after the weightier matters of the preceding movement and I welcome this.
The Rondo-Burleske has genuine bite and snarl as it opens. The music is taken at a fairly measured pace and this gives it proper weight. The BBC wind and brass sections excel. At 6:20 the nostalgic passage that prefigures the finale features a shining trumpet solo. Sanderling doesn’t milk these pages as some conductors do and he’s convincing, presenting the music in a straightforward manner. That means, for example, that when the perky little interjections by the clarinet start to take us back to the Rondo itself (8:45) those little figures sound more than ever like Till Eulenspiegel thumbing his nose at us. The final fling of the Rondo material is suitably exciting but as ever Sanderling keeps a firm hand on the tiller.
And so to the finale. By now one is not surprised to find the conductor taking a measured view and employing a degree of restraint. That said, there’s no coolness in the opening paragraphs, where the strings play marvellously for him. Sanderling seems to see the music in long spans and the music making, while controlled, has a fine sense of line and is not lacking in intensity – but the intensity is properly channelled. The climax (14:52) is magnificent and all the more powerful because Sanderling hasn’t peaked too soon. In the passage immediately following that climax the horns, splendid throughout the whole performance, ring out ripely. The last four or five minutes of music have a wonderful air of dignified resignation. As the last few pages unfold, with the music dying away on an ever-thinning thread of sound I wondered if the BBC Philharmonic string players have ever played so quietly or with such concentration.
This is a performance of great integrity and musicality. I don’t think Sanderling ever conducted more than a handful of Mahler works but this recording suggests very powerfully that he was totally at home with the idiom. A reading such as this can only have been the result of extensive study of the score and reflection about the music. I’m glad to find that he doesn’t seek to ring out the last drop of “meaning” or emotion from the symphony. When I want that approach there are other conductors to whom I can turn but Sanderling is very satisfying. His direct and unpretentious way with the score presents the music without frills and, especially, without an undue imposition of his own personality – though that’s not to say that the reading lacks character, for it doesn’t.
It only remains to say that the BBC Philharmonic plays splendidly for Sanderling, as you may have gathered already from my comments. Furthermore, the analogue recording is excellent, being both full and clear.
At the last count I had sixteen other recordings of the Mahler Ninth in my collection. But as it’s one of the supreme symphonic achievements of the last century one can always learn something new about it so exposure to it through a variety of recordings and live performances is important. This Sanderling performance is a most honourable addition to my collection. It’s a fine achievement and I’m delighted to see it restored to general circulation.