Recorded 17 July 1982 in Studio 7, BBC Manchester
Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey
Reviewed: April 2008
CD No: BBC LEGENDS
Duration: 80 minutes
If one were asked to name the great conductors who have left us multiple recordings (including concert performances) of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony most people would cite Klemperer, Barbirolli, Bernstein and Horenstein – and, today, Rattle. Few, one suspects, would nominate Kurt Sanderling although there are in fact four recorded versions from him: with the Berlin Symphony (1979, Berlin Classics), the NDR Symphony Orchestra (1987, En Larmes – the least well-known of Sanderling’s four but included in Perez de Arteaga’s Mahler discography) and with the Philharmonia Orchestra (1992, Erato). There is also this BBC Philharmonic account dating from 1982 which was originally issued by BBC Radio Classics in 1996. Here, superbly re-mastered by Tony Faulkner, it emerges freshly minted.
This is just as well because this recording is an important legacy, in much the same way as Jascha Horenstein’s of “Das lied on der Erde” with the same orchestra is. Having also heard three concert-performances of Mahler 9 conducted by Sanderling (with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the Philharmonia (after which the Erato recording was made), this Manchester performance strikes one as the most completely satisfying. A number of the very greatest conductors – Monteux, Horenstein and Sanderling – have worked with the BBC Philharmonic (previously BBC Northern and BBC Northern Symphony) and the musicians have invariably repaid the compliment with playing of the highest calibre. So it is with this Mahler 9.
Timings often tell us very little in this music – for instance Horenstein’s LSO performance, also on BBC Legends, runs to 87 minutes, but it took place in the cavernous immensities of the Royal Albert Hall. By contrast, in a comparatively dry studio, Sanderling takes just under 80 minutes (79’40” is the read-out against the BBC Radio Classics release that clocks-in at 78’01” – presumably the earlier transfer was played-back a little to fast?) but never feels hurried. Why, when so many conductors have recorded this work with the world’s most glamorous orchestras, does this version so easily hold its own. Having played it immediately after Karajan’s live version, recorded at the Berlin Festival, also in 1982, the answer is simple: texture and pacing.
Sanderling (born 1912 and now retired) does not gloss over the music’s acerbity and avoids beauty of sound for its own sake. Despite some generally swifter speeds, there is a Klemperer-like gravitas, each moment changing place with that which went before in a wonderfully logical progression. Especially in the massive first movement, where those muttered backwashes from the gigantic climaxes frequently sag in many performances, one is reminded of a phrase from Shakespeare: “all forwards do contend” – such is the seeming inevitability of Sanderling’s reading.
In the second-movement Ländler, without any recourse to hamming it up, there is an authentic stamp to its motion, the fiddles at the outset not exaggerating despite the instruction to play ‘wie Fiedeln’ so that one is made aware of the violas heavy undertow in a way seldom heard. The three tempos for the three Ländler are precisely judged, suddenly quicker in the second, ‘ganz langsam’ in the third; the same acuity is much in evidence in the third-movement Rondo-Burleske whose successive increases in speed are judged to a tee and whose textures are clarified even as the music enters the final straight.
The finale avoids any overt breast-beating – indeed one can imagine its relative understatement being something of a disappointment to listeners whose yardstick is measured out in outpourings of voluptuous string tone – but it is gloriously cohesive, seamlessly flowing and also grandly dignified. This is a Mahler 9 that delves deep, makes perfect musical sense and will repay repeated listening.
Michael Jameson’s notes mention that Shostakovich was dismayed to find that he “kept running into people who had heard of Mahler and Bruckner, but had never actually looked at a score”. In fact, it is worth remembering that quite a lot of Mahler was played in Russia in the immediate post-Revolutionary era with such conductors as Oskar Fried, Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer, and in April 1932 Shostakovich was at Horenstein’s Mahler 9 in Leningrad. Horenstein recounted how after that particular performance Shostakovich accompanied him, sitting up and talking all night, on the train to Moscow where Horenstein was due to perform Mahler 5. Shortly afterwards the Soviets started to crack down on Mahler and most other ‘modern’ Western music.
One small point of correction: Jameson’s notes say that Sanderling’s association with the Philharmonia began in 1980. Not so. I attended his first Philharmonia concert when he replaced an ailing Klemperer and I also sat in on rehearsals – in, I believe, May 1973.