Of all the London orchestras waking up to the desirability of having a Grand Old Man among its roster of conductors, the Philharmonia moved quickest and chose most wisely. Its conductor emeritus since 1996, Kurt Sanderling, who has died aged 98, proved even more popular with awestruck orchestral players than with respectful audiences for his love, depth of understanding and disciplined attention to detail of the core repertoire he conducted. While his interpretations of Beethoven and Brahms signalled the solid German training to which he returned in 1960, his authority in speaking about the meaning of the Shostakovich symphonies that were among his most distinguished interpretations came from more than two decades in the Soviet Union – perhaps the most unusual period of his career, and only recently the most often discussed.
Sanderling was born in Arys, in former East Prussia, now Orzysz, in Poland. His piano studies in Königsberg and Berlin led to a post as a repetiteur at the Berlin State Opera (now the Deutsche Oper) from 1931 until 1933, when Hitler’s rise to power meant his dismissal as a “non-Aryan”. After working for the Jewish Cultural Foundation, he was forced to leave Germany. A post as coach at the Metropolitan Opera, New York, fell through owing to the absence of an affidavit, so it was for Russia that he departed in 1936.
In one way his journey east, rather than west to America like so many of his colleagues, came at a bad time; Stalin’s denunciation of Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk as “chaos instead of music” spelt even more difficult times for creative and performing artists, as Prokofiev – who returned to his homeland at the same time – soon discovered. But for conductors there was plenty of work. Sanderling assisted Georges Sebastian at the Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra before taking up a post in the southern city of Kharkov, now Kharkiv in Ukraine, from 1939.
There Sanderling first performed the music of Shostakovich, conducting the Sixth Symphony shortly after its premiere. He had become acquainted with Shostakovich’s works right at the start of his Soviet career, playing through a four-hand piano arrangement of the First Symphony with Nikolai Anossov, but did not meet the composer until 1943, when a courteous, respectful and durable friendship was born which extended to Sanderling’s son Thomas (Shostakovich entrusted the first German performances of several of his later symphonies to the younger Sanderling, who had taken up his father’s profession). Kurt Sanderling was chosen to “rehabilitate” the disgraced artist in a concert a year after the trials of “formalism in music” in 1947, and always remained dedicated to explaining the hidden meaning of Shostakovich’s music to orchestral players. He tended to steer clear of the more deliberate epics – especially the Seventh and Eleventh Symphonies – but the massive tragedy of the Eighth seemed to accord well with his sustained, often very slow, shaping of long paragraphs, accompanied by the most detailed shading of phrase and nuance.
His chance to explore the breadth of the Russian symphonic repertoire with the very finest of orchestras came in 1941, when he was once more appointed assistant – this time to the awesome Yevgeny Mravinsky at the Leningrad Philharmonic. The second-in-command made several recordings with the orchestra – including a powerful interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet. In his in-depth study Conductor’s World, David Wooldridge recalled that the German conductor’s visit to Berlin with his Russian orchestra in 1957, playing Weber’s Der Freischütz Overture, Scriabin’s Piano Concerto with Emil Gilels as soloist and Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony, “boded well for the Leningrad Philharmonic’s title as the world’s greatest orchestra, and Sanderling’s title as the world’s greatest conductor”.
In 1960, he was sent to East Berlin to raise the Berlin Symphony Orchestra to new heights. Although it never became the rival to Herbert von Karajan’s glowing Berlin Philharmonic on the other side of the wall as the authorities had hoped, and lacked the distinctive bite of the Leningrad Philharmonic, Sanderling worked hard to improve standards and left a legacy of reliable, if safe, recorded interpretations. He also championed a host of contemporary German composers, though, according to his son Thomas he did not hold them in the highest esteem. At the same time he took charge of the Dresden Staatskapelle (1964-67), and began to tour more widely.
His first appearance with the (then New) Philharmonia came in 1972, replacing an indisposed Otto Klemperer, and grand master status arrived when he recorded a cycle of Beethoven symphonies with the Philharmonia in 1981. The verdict of players in all the British orchestras he conducted, including the BBC Symphony, the BBC Philharmonic (or BBC Northern Symphony, as it then was), remained the same: a Sanderling concert was always an event, the conductor a rare figure to be respected – and permitted to talk at length about his point of view – by otherwise unimpressible musicians.
The same was true of his work with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and of his appearances with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra as he approached his 90s. He retired on his own terms, slowly but wisely, first ceasing to travel to America and Japan, then taking only direct flights from Berlin and finally conducting in Berlin only. By the time he celebrated his 95th birthday, he had retired completely.
The tradition lives on in his conductor sons Michael (also a cellist), Stefan and Thomas, who followed his father’s work with the Philharmonia in an outstanding recording of the four Brahms symphonies. On the recent anniversary of 9/11 in Moscow, Thomas conducted the Russian National Orchestra in Shostakovich’s Thirteenth (“Babi Yar”) Symphony. The composer’s widow, Irina, was there, and recalled Sanderling as being among the greatest of the musicians, along with Mravinsky and the cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich, who had been close to her husband.
Sanderling’s first marriage ended in divorce, and he is survived by his second wife, Barbara. Thomas is the son of his first marriage, and Michael and Stefan are from his second.
• Kurt Sanderling, conductor, born 19 September 1912; died 17 September 2011