Classical Music Review: Keeping it all in the family

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Kurt Sanderling Conducts

RFH, SBC, London

The first Philharmonia concert of the current South Bank season saw Kurt Sanderling conducting solid, patient and characteristically considered accounts of Beethoven, Schumann and Brahms. Beethoven's overture Leonora No 3 was kept very much on an even keel, with sober speeds, hushed string playing in the quieter passages, a rather four-square off-stage trumpet and a vigorous coda scuffed by untidy strings.

Mitsuko Uchida gave a memorable account of the Schumann piano concerto, powerfully italicised in the opening chords, fluid and malleable in accompanying passages (her response to the Intermezzo's heart-rending cello melody especially tender) and with a flowing cantabile in the central episodes of the first movement. Uchida would cross her arms during tutti passages as if shielding herself from the cold; she looked just a little fragile, even vulnerable, and yet her command of the situation was absolute, her overall interpretation precisely focused.

Sanderling conducted a sympathetic accompaniment, but his handling of Brahms's Symphony No 2, while typically structure-conscious, was oddly featureless. Best was the string playing - especially in the second and fourth movements, and that rather ominous passage in the slow movement where the trombone and bass-tuba answer each other. But phrase- shaping elsewhere sounded prosaic and the finale only caught fire in the closing bars. It wasn't so much sluggish tempi that put the dampers on, as what seemed like a lack of involvement - untypical of such a master Brahmsian.

As it was, Kurt Sanderling's distinguished life and career had already been celebrated on Sunday night in a Wigmore Hall concert marking his 85th birthday. Mitsuko Uchida was the prompting inspiration and she opened the programme with forceful, big-toned accounts of Schubert's Fifth and Third Impromptus. The Fifth features some exquisite dialoguing between the bass and the treble, which Uchida charted with unusual urgency, rushing or retreating as the musical mood dictated. Her warm, fluid touch brushed at the mellifluous G major but, again, not without a suggestion of anguish - especially in the central section.

The evening also included contributions from Sanderling's wife Barbara and from two of his sons, cellist Michael and conductor Stefan. Michael joined Uchida in Brahms's heroic Second Cello Sonata, a fiercely assertive rendition marked by bold piano playing and a vibrant if somewhat nasal cello tone. After the interval, the Wigmore's compact stage was filled to capacity by 12 wind-players of the Philharmonia and Barbara Sanderling on double-bass for a robust, if unsubtle, reading of four movements from Mozart's great Serenade No 10 (or Gran Partita). I've heard more sensitive readings of the heavenly Adagio, and the promised sixth movement was for some reason replaced by the zestful Finale, but it was an invigorating encounter none the less and the audience raised a hearty cheer as Uchida reappeared to present the venerable Kurt with a well-deserved bouquet.