The quiet legend that was Kurt Sanderling is no more.
He died in Berlin on September 17, two days short of his 99th birthday.
Sanderling, a German refugee in Stalin’s Russia, grew very close to Dmitri Shostakovich during and after the Second World War. He was joint principal conductor of the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra with Yevgeny Mravinsky, effectively his deputy. He would get to conduct the second run of performances of each new symphony after his boss had given the premiere. Mravinsky, a man of deep reserve, had a cold and formal relationship with Shostakovich. Sanderling became a close friend.
When I asked him once to talk about it, he refused. ‘I don’t like to make myself look great through my contact with a man of true greatness,’ he said. (A longer interview about DSCH can be found here.)
He returned to East Germany in 1960 to direct the Berlin Symphony Orchestra for 17 years. A mild-mannered socialist, he was trusted by the regime and allowed to guest conduct in the west, where he worked productively with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and with the Philharmonia, in London. His recordings of Mahler’s 9th symphony and Shostakovich’s 10th and 15th are among the most impressive available.
Through a lifelong friendship with the composer Berthold Goldschmidt, he was among the first conductors to perform Deryck Cooke’s completion of Mahler’s 10th symphony, which Goldschmidt had premiered in 1964. Here’s a video clip.
Sanderling retired from the podium in 2002.
Two of his sons, Thomas and Stefan (below), enjoy international careers as conductors. A third, Michael, is a cellist and conductor.