Kurt Sanderling

Looking back on Shostakovich: I

Born in at Arys in what was formerly East Prussia in 1912, Kurt Sanderling is, at 85, the oldest living conductor to have worked with Shostakovich.

Sanderling was principal conductor of the Berlin Symphony Orchestra between 1960 and 1977. Recently Berlin Classics has been reissuing digital remasterings of some Shostakovich symphony recordings he made with the BSO between 1977 and 1989, including the Eighth. Normally not disposed to answer questions about his interpretations, he allowed Hans Bitterlich (with him, above) to interview him in connection with the Berlin Classics series. Some of his answers appear below.

Sanderling began his Soviet conducting career in 1937, later becoming assistant to Mravinsky with the Leningrad Philharmonic in 1941, a post he held for the next nineteen years. In 1960 the Soviet authorities sent him to East Berlin to develop the Berlin Symphony Orchestra in competition with Karajan's Berlin Philharmonic. Sanderling has won a considerable reputation in the West since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and is still active with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra.

Ernest Fleischmann, former manager of the London Symphony Orchestra and now executive director of the LAPO, spoke about Sanderling to Norman Lebrecht in 1991:

"I think back to Pierre Monteux, who played viola in string quartets for Brahms, had firsthand relationships with Debussy and Stravinsky, conducted the first and 50th-anniversary performances of The Rite of Spring. He gave something very indefinable and absolutely lasting to the LSO - in the same way that Sanderling is giving to our orchestra. I see a parallel, and we are the richer for it."

Lebrecht reported as follows (Classical Music, 18th May 1991) on Sanderling's rehearsals with the Los Angeles Philharmonic of Shostakovich's Eighth Symphony:

"Restrained and energy-efficient on the concert podium, he becomes a different man in rehearsal, loquacious to the point of garrulousness, acting up like a Hollywood ham in a surging current of communication. When a flute and harp fail to grasp his intentions, he detains them at the end of the session, pacing wordlessly back and forth until the players comprehend the weariness and boredom he is trying to make them convey.

"'He is the only conductor I know who talks freely about the musical and non-musical aspects of Shostakovich - and the only one whom the orchestra will tolerate doing that,' says Ara Guzelimian, artistic administrator of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. 'Everything he talks about, he's been there, he's lived it,' confirms Michael Nutt, a British violinist. 'He'll say: this is the despair, this is the tyranny, this is the marching army, and you'll know he has got it from the source'.

"At one point, Sanderling tells the orchestra that the piccolo solo in the second movement of Shostakovich's Eighth Symphony represents a young army officer who has been given an unexpected weekend pass and goes whistling away down the road. A bassoon solo is a puffed-up party apparatchik swaggering off on his first trip abroad.

"There is reason to suspect that Sanderling came closer to the tormented composer than the lofty Mravinsky, who directed the prestigious symphonies but let his colleague take over subsequent performances. He refuses to discuss his relationship with Shostakovich or write about it, unwilling to exploit something that was precious and private.

"Only in the seclusion of his green room and the creative furnace of rehearsal hall will he recall personal and musical encounters, the acute memory of Shostakovich looking over both shoulders to see no one else was around before daring to utter a comment about his own work. He never spoke in the presence of more than one person.

"Sanderling is prepared to assert that everything Shostakovich related from his own experience in the disputed Solomon Volkov memoir is essentially accurate."

A Jew, Kurt Sanderling was educated in Germany between the wars, moving to Berlin in 1926, where he studied piano. At the age of 19, he began to perform at chamber recitals and worked as a répétiteur at the Berlin State Opera until Hitler came to power in 1933, whereupon he was dismissed as a "non-Aryan". In 1936, fearing for his life, Sanderling emigrated to the Soviet Union, arriving in the Soviet Union soon after the start of the ideological campaign against Shostakovich. To Hans Bitterlich, he recalled:

"As a newcomer, I failed to understand how dangerous it all was, believing that it could affect only his work as a musician. Shostakovich found himself ostracised overnight even though Stalin, in characteristic ambivalence, kept the composer supplied with lucrative commisssions for film music to ensure his financial survival. The press was full of the most venomous invective at the time."

Sanderling, who was at the Moscow première of Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony on 29th January 1938, considers the work to be "probably the first time that Shostakovich addressed himself to the dominant theme of his life: anti-Stalinism":

"The audience was very receptive to Shostakovich's message, and after the first movement we looked around rather nervously, wondering whether we might be arrested after the concert... The vast majority of the audience knew perfectly well what it was all about... It perfectly reflected the sentiments that were uppermost in our minds.

"The closing section of the symphony is the only part that may give rise to misunderstanding. It was wrongly interpreted in some quarters as describing the jubilant mood of a party congress. But as the observant listener will notice, the enforced enthusiasm of the masses is meant as a gesture of defiance and self-affirmation. Not as a victory for the regime, but as a victory against it."

Describing the second movement, Sanderling observes that "this is not a boisterous scherzo, but a grim and biting parody". As for the symphony's character as a whole, he sees it as "the music of a solitary figure who finds himself at the mercy of powers beyond his control." Shostakovich's Seventh, too, is, in Sanderling's opinion "far more ambiguous than its somewhat declamatory style would suggest." As with the Fifth, "it must, of course," he says, "be seen in the context of the time when it was written."

Evacuated from Moscow to Novosibirsk in 1943, Sanderling was present while the Leningrad Philharmonic rehearsed the Eighth Symphony. (This was where he first met the composer.) The symphony was prefaced, both in Novosibirsk and later in Moscow, with a speech by Shostakovich's close friend Ivan Sollertinsky. Sanderling recalls:

"He made no attempt to find an excuse for the work, but with incredible eloquence and sophistry gave it an interpretation that brought it into line with the political requirements of the day. Sollertinsky said the symphony reflected the horrors of war but offered the bright vision of a world of peace. This was, of course, sheer nonsense, as he was perfectly aware that the central theme was not the horrors of war, but the horrors of life, the life of an intellectual of his day.

"My interpretation of the third movement is that it depicts the crushing of the individual. The fourth movement is the most introspective of this symphony, and maybe of his entire symphonic output. It shows the author, the individual, in a state of solitary helplessness."

On 15th February 1995, Sanderling spoke in similar terms to Hans Bitterlich about Shostakovich's Fifteenth Symphony, composed nearly thirty years after the Eighth:

"I must point out the unbelievable misunderstanding to which this symphony was publicly exposed through false information given by the composer. For most of his life Shostakovich suffered from the justified fear of being attacked on account of his music. In many of his works, in fact, his reserved attitude to the government in power - to put it mildly - can clearly be heard. Wherever this was particularly evident, he attempted in words - for music can of course be interpreted in many different ways - to give the true content of the work a different slant.

"Even at that time he could have expressed himself more freely but because of his trauma he 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.

"From my experience as a conductor I can say that this symphony makes the greatest impression of all on audiences. They feel the monstrosity of its content, in particular the last movement which is a tearful, deeply moving farewell to life. 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."

Asked about Shostakovich himself, Kurt Sanderling would say only this:

"It's not possible to describe a person in a few sentences and certainly not someone as contradictory as Shostakovich. Contradictory because, at the time, one had to lead two lives: one for the public eye, the other privately. Outside the Soviet Union, he was only too frequently judged by the way he had to behave and the sort of person he seemed to be in public, and the message he conveyed through his music wasn't understood."

Sanderling's Shostakovich lacks the attack of Mravinsky and Kondrashin, inclining to the more sombre and monumental approaches of Rostropovich with the Washington NSO (Teldec) and the composer's son Maxim in his series with the London Symphony Orchestra (Collins Classics). However, what Sanderling forfeits in impulse he gains in his care over the articulation of phrases and the dramatic characterisation of solos, in line with his specific views as outlined above. There is, also, a depth of feeling and sense of philosophical perspective to his performances which compensates for their occasional expansiveness. Slow as he sometimes is, there is rarely any feeling of deadness about the playing he conjures. Often, indeed, his seems the tempo juste.

Much like the readings of Rostropovich - in, for example, the Eleventh Symphony (Teldec 9031-76262-23) - Sanderling's versions will chiefly interest confirmed Shostakovich fans and, in particular, other conductors, who will learn much from their very detailed and meaningful attention to phrasing and timbre. They will appeal less to more general listeners and are, on the whole, not recommended as first-choice buys.

Erato has issued a recording of the Fifteenth Symphony made with the Cleveland Orchestra (2292-45815-2). Available (or soon to be) on Berlin Classics are the Fifth (0020632BC), the Eighth (0020642BC), the Tenth (0090182BC), the Fifteenth (0090432BC), and a coupling of the First and Sixth (0021812BC).

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