Kurt Sanderling, one of very few conductors actually to have retired, has died aged 98. A superb exponent of the great Austro-German repertoire (he left much admired cycles of the symphonies of both Brahms and Beethoven), Sanderling also excelled at the music of his adopted Russia, particularly Prokofiev and Shostakovich.
Born in the former East Prussia (now Poland), Sanderling studied the piano in Königsberg and Berlin before joining the Berlin State Opera as a répétiteur. In 1933, the rise of the Nazis led to his dismissal "as a non-Aryan" and he left Germany and settled in Moscow. Soon he was assisting Georges Sebastian, then principal conductor of the Moscow RSO, and then he moved to take up a conducting post in Ukraine.
It was around this time – the war years – that Sanderling started conducting the music of Shostakovich, giving one of the earliest performances of the Sixth Symphony. He finally met the composer in 1943 and they became lifelong friends, and Sanderling one of his most loyal champions. His recording of Symphony No 15 is one of the finest this quirky work has received. (He was later also one of the first conductors to champion Deryck Cooke’s performing edition of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony, a work premiered by Sanderling’s friend, the composer Berthold Goldschmidt.)
In 1941, Sanderling became assistant to the great Evgeny Mravinsky at the Leningrad Philharmonic, one of the world’s greatest ensembles, and he started to record with the orchestra. His powerful interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony was joined on a DG mono set by Mravinsky’s Fifth and Sixth, and the two men’s visions were wonderfully complementary. He also recorded Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet.
In 1960 he became principal conductor of the Berlin Symphony Orchestra (with whom he recorded the Sibelius symphonies) and between 1964 and 1967 led the Staatskapelle Dresden (it was with this orchestra that he made his superb Brahms cycle for Eurodisc/RCA). His UK debut came in 1972 when he conducted the Philharmonia Orchestra, the orchestra with whom he recorded a Beethoven symphony cycle for EMI (lavishly branded in red by the sponsor Du Maurier); he was subsequently appointed conductor emeritus by the orchestra.
Later he became a welcome guest, performing with the Los Angeles PO, the BPO, the Madrid SO, Tokyo’s Nippon SO, the BRSO and Concertgebouw Orchestra (both of which he conducted for a Beethoven piano concerto cycle with Mitsuko Uchida as soloist) and many others: players admired his quiet mastery of his art and the seriousness of his approach. A very fine 1978 Bruckner Third Symphony with the BBC Northern SO (now the BBC Philharmonic) has been issued by ICA Classics, and there is a Mahler Fourth on BBC Legends with the same orchestra.
He retired in 2002 at the age 90. He had three sons, all of them conductors.