Arts: At the age of enlightenment

Now 87, Kurt Sanderling believes that it is only in later life that a conductor can find a truly individual approach to music. By Philipp Blom
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The Independent Culture
It is not, of course, the world's oldest profession, but the art of conducting certainly has the oldest exponents. The German conductor Kurt Sanderling has advanced into the realm of international stardom only relatively recently, when critics and orchestras alike became enraptured with the youthful vigor, the clarity and delicacy he conjures from his scores, finding sounds in an orchestra which had seemingly long been lost under years of playing practice and convention.

Sanderling is 87. Watching him rehearse with the Philharmonia Orchestra it is striking how focused he is, cajoling the musicians, pleading with them and charming them while tirelessly working on phrases and textures. Whenever he is swept away in the heat of the moment his English deserts him. "So, gut!" he cries into the string section, while rewarding a beautiful woodwind solo with an enraptured "Schon!"

This constant encouragement, however, does not mean that the maestro is a soft touch. One of the members of the orchestra finds that when Sanderling stops and looks at him. "I understand that you can't all the time play at 100 per cent, but sometimes. And never less than 40. You are playing a little bit for the rehearsal. Play for Sibelius!" There is no malice in this exhortation, and little conductor's ego.

Sanderling is rehearsing the Second Symphony by Sibelius, and he tries to communicate the essence of the music with his trademark stories and in a language that seems to be all his own: "Allow me to speak about what I am feeling," he says with a self-deprecating smile, beaming at the orchestra, "you are not obliged to feel the same. The third movement is a mighty storm. It is terrible, and here are him and her in a small log cabin, and they don't notice anything, they are busy with themselves."

The musicians laugh, the passage they repeat begins to glow from within. Sanderling's career path is as impressive as his recent achievements: he learned his craft from Wilhelm Furtwangler and Erich Kleiber before fleeing from the Nazis to Leningrad, as it was then, to work with the legendary conductor Yewgeni Mravinsky. While there, Sanderling became a friend of Dimitri Shost-akovitch. It seem natural that such a life story should invite curiosity, but the conductor is tired of talking of his past.

"People usually ask me why I went to the USSR in 1935," he says, "as if I had a choice. The other question is why I went back to the GDR and not to West Germany. It's quite simple, nobody in the West asked me to come... I am a little embarrassed by all these questions into my life story. Let's talk about music instead, a much more interesting and pleasant subject."

Visibly tired after the three-hour rehearsal, Sanderling explains that the symphony is difficult to get right. "The orchestra has played this piece in every single season. They know it backwards. If then all of a sudden a conductor comes and he wants something - not even something special, just something - that almost creates class war."

Nevertheless he has great admiration and affection for the Philharmonia, "his" London orchestra. "They work phenomenally hard. After this rehearsal, they have more recording sessions."

Asked about his seemingly youthful approach to the pieces he conducts, he replies: "When you're young you are far less free and your eyes are trained on your idols. It is only later that one can find a truly individual approach.' Sanderling's own approach may be summed up as communicating emotion. "It is not helpful to spend too much time on perfection if that means sacrificing the immediacy and emotional involvement of the musicians. It is my job to tell the orchestra what to feel. Doing that, I am not afraid to use trivial images."

Sanderling is far from willing to lay aside the baton, though he officially retired more than 20 years ago. "Now I only conduct things that I am interested in," he says. "I stick to the standard repertoire, partly because it is simply the most beautiful. I have conducted plenty of rare works in my day, but it is still a great pleasure for me to delve deeper into the four Brahms symphonies."

Sanderling is an unashamed traditionalist. "There were great composers in the first half of the century, but what comes later fails to grip me. It also seems unable to grip a lot of other people. Personally speaking, the history of music almost stops with Shostakovich, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, and Bartok, but is that so bad? Don't we have enough wonderful pieces to play?"

The problem, Sanderling says, is that melody has fallen from grace almost completely. "Music is basically song, and song is melody. Composers like Verdi were great because of their melodic skills, and for the same reason they are frowned upon today. Perhaps we simply have to accept that developments come to a natural conclusion, though maybe the intelligent incorporation of jazz into classical music is a possible way forward.

"It's easy for me, I just conduct what I like," he says, and then adds with a wry smile, "maybe they keep calling me because they believe they have found someone who is still at home in that tradition. So far I have no reason to complain about a lack of invitations."

Sanderling conducts the Philharmonia tonight in Wagner's Lohengrin Prelude, Mozart's Piano Concerto No 17 (with Maria Joao Pires) and Sibelius's Symphony No 2. On 30 Sept they will perform Brahm's Tragic Overture, Mozart's Piano Concerto No 24 (with Mitsuko Uchida) and Sibelius's Symphony No 2; on 9 Oct, Beethoven's Piano Concerto No 3 (with Radu Lupu) and Schubert's Symphony No 9; on 12 Oct, Dvorak's Cello Concerto (with Michael Sanderling) and Tchaikov- sky's Symphony No 5. All concerts at the Royal Festival Hall, South Bank, London. Box office: 0171-960 4242