What can we glean from watching Sanderling at the BBC Proms in London in 1988? On the podium, he is relaxed and smiling in the Schumann Symphony, a work he had doubtless conducted countless times in Germany itself (he does so from memory in the Royal Albert Hall). This is absolutely not a hard-driven performance: the first movement is less troubled than sometimes, the slow movements has a warm inner glow, the contrasts between the scherzo and trio are well brought out but happily not exaggerated, and the finale is fast enough but never furious. The transitions between movements, a seemingly Minor matter but always of concern to Schumann, who linked all four movements of the symphony together, are beautifully yet unobtrusively managed. Of course, the spacious acoustic of the venue may have had something to do with this, and I guess that Sanderling is listening intently to his players. The BBC's Manchester-based orchestra was lucky enough to welcome him as their regular guest conductor, after an initial and successful first encounter some thirteen years previously when Sanderling was already over sixty! So at this Prom, they knew each other well.
And this shows too, in the Mahler which made up the rest of their programme. Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth) is even now still relatively rare on the concert platform, partly because of the sheer difficulty of finding not one, but two suitable soloists. The tenor must be at ease in the often high tessitura and yet able to ride comfortably over the orchestra, the alto (or mezzo) is taxed to the limit, musically and dramatically, in the sixth and last song, the long sustained farewell that is Der Abschied. We all know how much Mahler put of himslef into this astonishing ision of the End. John Mitchinson, himself a Northerner, was for many years the British tenor of choice in this work – there is a famous version of this same piece, made with this very same orchestra, under Jascha Horenstein, from some fifteen years previously! Caroly Watkinson might have seemed a surprising choice in a role commanded at the time by the likes of Janet Baker and Yvonne Minton, especially as Ms Watkinson – also a Lancastrian – was at the time often considered somthing of a Baroque specialist, most at home in Purcell, Bach or Haendel. Here, though, she wonderfully demonstrates the dangers of such pigeon-holing in a performance at once intense, restrained, and glowing with inner conviction.
Sanderling's Mahler turns out to have the same virtues as his Schumann. It is somehow never frenzied or frantic, possibly not even tragic. Instead, there is a deeper musicality in evidence, where the notes come first – and the musical articulation, and the skills of the players – and the music speaks through them. Kurt Sanderling was one of an increasingly rare breed. This treasurable evening, now happily preserved for posterity, is a fine testament to his special art, on the centenary of a special conductor.
Source: Piers Burton-Page/ICA
BBC Proms, 1981