Ein Heldenleben, Op.40
Symphony No.8 in B minor, D759 (Unfinished)
BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra
Recorded in Manchester – Strauss 30 September 1975 in Free Trade Hall; Schubert 17 April 1978 in BBC Studios
Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey
Reviewed: November 2009
CD No: BBC LEGENDS
Duration: 70 minutes
We used to call them records, now we call them discs as though the medium were the message. However, a record has overtones of preserving something important. Nowadays a great deal gets recorded for no particular reason. This is rather different. As far as I am aware Kurt Sanderling (born 1912 and now retired) made no commercial recordings of Richard Strauss’s music and nor do I recall his conducting Strauss in the concert hall. Perhaps the memories of being compelled to give up his post at the Berlin State Opera when the Nazis came to power in 1933 and Strauss’s own role within the regime left him with an aversion to the composer. More likely though one suspects that there were many other composers – notably Haydn, Shostakovich and Mahler – with whom he felt a greater affinity.
This Ein Heldenleben, recorded live in the Free Trade Hall in 1975, is certainly not the last word on the piece. For that one would ideally require an orchestra with a greater depth of string tone. However, as a memento of Sanderling conducting Strauss it is of real value. Many great conductors treat Heldenleben as an opportunity to showcase their own and their orchestra’s talents. I vividly recall a superb Karajan performance with the Berlin Philharmonic from the same period at the Royal Festival Hall which falls into this category. Sanderling’s approach is very different. Rather than treating the work as an excuse for orchestral opulence, he takes the score at face value with purely musical values predominant throughout.
The opening paragraph depicting the Hero is notable for its restrained dynamics and careful attention to balances, allowing one to savour much inner detail along the way which is frequently glossed over. The Critics are a spiteful lot but Sanderling lets their cacophony build gradually rather than feeling the need to over-characterise. The solo violin which depicts the Hero’s Companion is played by Barry Griffith (then leading the BBC Northern Symphony, now Philharmonic), the first time he had played the role in public (he recalls in the booklet note how Sanderling helped him “all the way through”); it is a leisurely, affectionate portrait and emphasises the zart side of the composer’s wife. The build-up to the Battle scene is particularly carefully handled, Sanderling not rushing his fences, whilst the confrontation itself allows us to hear much wind and brass detail often obscured and the climax where victory is finally achieved is wonderfully expansive as Strauss rests on the pinnacle of his success. Despite the slow tempo the final paragraph, the Hero’s retirement from the World, is dignified and completely without sentimentality.
This is an excellent antidote to glitzier readings with Strauss’s Hero and his wife for once emerging as rather more likeable characters than their usual disagreeable selves. The recording has been expertly restored by Tony Faulkner.
The ‘Unfinished’, may be the makeweight here but is the more completely achieved of the two works. On a personal note I sat in on Sanderling’s rehearsals for this piece with the Scottish National Orchestra at about the time of this Manchester performance, which is similarly impressive.
Here Sanderling achieves with rare acuity a near-perfect balance of forward momentum and menace. Tempos are never hurried in either movement, yet there is a constant sense of onward pulse in both, helped by the most precise placing of accents, and first movement development is absolutely chilling, the music coming as if from beyond the grave. This same otherworldly quality informs much of the Andante whose big outbursts are perfectly calibrated to achieve maximum weight whilst never over-stepping the bounds of style. Thomas Ratter’s eloquent oboe solos here are particularly distinguished whilst the violins bare ppp leaving-taking octave-leaps at the close hang in the air with almost Mahlerian potency. There are few performances of Schubert’s ‘Unfinished’ Symphony that so completely get to the nub of the matter.