Kurt Sanderling: The Last Man Standing

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Richard S. Ginell - From Out of the The WestBy Richard S. Ginell: From Out of the West

     I’m listening right now to a treasurable recording of Kurt Sanderling – who died Saturday just two days short of his 99th birthday – conducting Brahms’ Symphony No. 3 with the Dresden Staatskapelle circa 1971 or ‘72.  It’s slow but beautiful and flowing, each phrase curling up and inevitably leading to the next with a firm pulse underlying everything.  There are other roads to Brahms 3 than this, but while you’re immersed in Sanderling’s vision, you temporarily feel that this is the only way.

     That is what the great performers could do – and Sanderling had the gift, hard-won through years of training in Germany, and then decades toiling in the Soviet Union and Eastern bloc away from the international spotlight, only to emerge in old age – like his idol Otto Klemperer – as a profound interpreter of the Germanic classics in leisurely time.  Yet where Klemperer was busy carving out implacable, indomitable monuments in granite, Sanderling was more interested in carving rivers of sound, gently but firmly and logically flowing to their inevitable destination.

     We in Los Angeles were very fortunate that this distinguished Old World visitor was a regular guest on the Los Angeles Philharmonic podium from 1984 into the early 1990s.  Carlo Maria Giulini was leaving town for good, and Sanderling was brought in to shore up the core repertoire while Giulini’s successor André Previn tended to his specialties (the British, the Russians, the Impressionists, Richard Strauss) and Pierre Boulez handled the moderns.  

     Up until that time, Sanderling had barely done any work in America.  He conducted a memorable Beethoven Ninth in San Francisco early in the 1980s but reportedly didn’t get on with the San Francisco Symphony musicians.  Yet in an example of the strange ways of musical chemistry, the LA Phil took to him instantly.  The musicians loved to play for Sanderling; he knew what he wanted and knew how to ask for it – which is what these players want the most from a conductor and don’t always get.  The late Harold Dicterow – who led the Phil’s second violins for an amazing 52 years – once told me that the orchestra always looked forward to Sanderling’s guest appearances, for they knew they would be getting something more “substantial” than the usual fare.  When I interviewed Sanderling at the Biltmore Hotel, I asked him about his relationship with the LA Phil, and the relaxed, sage maestro replied that he was grateful that the musicians loved him as a guest, but that they wouldn’t like him so much if he was “the boss!”  Even long after he stopped coming to the West Coast on orders from his doctor who didn’t want him to travel long distances, they still talk about Sanderling in the back rooms of Walt Disney Concert Hall, which he never saw.

     I remember gorgeously deep Sanderling performances of Beethoven, Mahler 9, Schubert, Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich 15 (one of his few ventures outside the core in tribute to his friend, the composer), and others that escape me, but the performances that stand out the most in my memory were two of the Bruckner Third.  One was in Los Angeles with the Phil, the other was in Berlin nearly a year later with the Berlin Philharmonic in the Philharmonie.  The Berlin performance took place on Oct. 2, 1990, the night before East and West Germany were reunited – and one can only imagine what tremendous significance that concert must have been to a man who was born before the Soviet Union came to be, lived through Hitler, Stalin, the Cold War, and survived to see the Soviet bloc fall, and then some.  Sanderling may have been the longest-lived major conductor, period (I can only think of Mitch Miller – if you consider him a conductor, which he was in his later years – who lasted about four weeks longer) – and as such, his passing finally shuts the door on a generation of venerated maestros from the Old World whose likes we probably will not see again.