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Kurt Sanderling and Rachmaninov: from Two Sides of Life

This morning I found myself engaged in an unusual Sunday morning activity (although less so in this house) crawling around on my hands and knees rummaging through the bottom shelf of the book cases in a long-neglected section: my beloved LP collection.

Whilst the cassette tapes and CDs have long since been confined to the dustbin with little sentiment, there is something about the collection of LPs that means I just cant quite bring myself to throw them away, even though digging out the turntable is now largely reserved for high days and holidays.

There were several conclusions I drew from this search:

  1. It is high time I re-alphabetised my LP collection.  Various house moves have meant the traditional arrangement has long since evolved into a looser understanding of the English alphabet;
  2. My LP collection could be described as eclectic.  Much like Battersea dogs home, no matter how curious the creation it is still given a loving space, I refer to exhibit A… 

However, this morning’s mission was very specific.  Somewhere, buried in this Aladdin’s cave of wonders and atrocities was one of my most prized possessions.  One of the first LPs I ever bought: Rachmaninov’s Symphony No. 2 with Kurt Sanderling and the legendary Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra.  I wanted to check the release date on it and after a good deal of hunting I found, disguised in the print of the vinyl, a date of 1956.  After a little further research it seemed even this may be a re-release.

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Sanderling taught me that Rachmaninov (and specifically the 2nd Symphony) needn’t be monolithic, an overwhelming slab of romantic edifice.  Instead, with the right understanding (we mere mortals dare to dream) every shadow thrown on every corner of this work can be exposed to the light, every sound and intention heard.  I remember being moved to the point of forgetting the necessity to breathe the first time I heard the first movement of this recording, it was (technical limitations of early sound engineering notwithstanding) a textbook in how to perform not only this work but Rachmaninov; end of story, job done.

Except, like with all the truly great conductors, this was not the end of the story.  This performance dated from his time as assistant conductor at Leningrad to the the even more titanic Yevgeny Mravinsky.  Sanderling was (by conducting standards) a fledgling, albeit a highly advanced one.

In April 1989, in the unlikely venue of St Barnabas Church in Mitcham, South London, he joined forces with the Philharmonia to give another recorded account.  In his time in Leningrad, Mravinsky had instilled in Sanderling the necessity to rehearse to a tee, forensically and extensively.  I have it on good authority that relations between Sanderling and the Philharmonia were sometimes strained (some members of the orchestra actively disliking him), although I’m sure others are better qualified to speak on this subject than I…

The resulting recording is one of magic, some issues of interpretation aside (the final movement, marked Allegro Vivace, with its savage cut is to many commentators’ tastes neither allegro, nor vivace!)  From the very first note, the first movement shows the darkness that plagued Rachmaninov throughout writing this work, darkness that is confronted, feared, wistfully indulged and agitated until in the final bars of the finale, with the wind behind him, he finally breaks through into the light.

I remember one night in the wee small hours listening to this recording with the composer Martin Butler after, what could be argued, was a sufficiency of red wine…   Martin said (of Sanderling) “THERE is a man who truly understands counterpoint”, and he was right.  EVERY note, of EVERY line can be heard in the first movement of this recording.

Sanderling, at this point in his twilight years (although it was a long twilight, he lived to 99), brought to this second recording a sense of mist and darkness, but also love and joy that can only come from a man who has lived an extraordinary life and who maybe senses his artistic time is short.  To combine that sense of impending finality with Rachmaninov’s demons gave the perfect creative storm.

It is well worth comparing the two recordings made at either side of this extraordinary man’s life.  It is possible to hear the journey Sanderling takes with this work, and (some questionable musical decisions aside) both recordings would be deemed remarkable on their own.  When combined as, in essence, a musical autobiography Kurt Sanderling, they become nothing short of legendary.

When it comes to telling the story of a great life, who needs words.

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