As a young man in Berlin, he spent his teens listening to Furtwangler and Klemperer. As an exile from Hitler, he fled to the USSR, became co- conductor of the Leningrad Phil, and worked alongside Mravinsky and Shostakovic h. Now, at 85, he's back conducting the Philharmonia. Stephen Johnson meets Kurt Sanderling
Someone ought to make a serious medical study of conductors. Why do so many of them remain robust and active well into their seventies and even eighties? Sir Georg Solti was just a month short of his 85th birthday when he died, two weeks ago. Gunter Wand, 85 last January, is still directing unforgettable performances of monumental works. Wolfgang Sawallisch, recently turned 75, is evidently at the apex of his career. Pierre Boulez, 72, looks like a decently worn 50-year-old and, at his best, conducts with the energy of someone much younger.

And now here is Kurt Sanderling, 85 this month, and marking the occasion with two full concerts with the Philharmonia - an orchestra he has worked with regularly since 1972, when he stood in (to his intense pride) for the orchestra's artistic founding-father, Otto Klemperer. The week's events, beginning with a "surprise" chamber concert at the Wigmore Hall on Sunday, look to me like a celebration, but when I use the word, Sanderling visibly winces. "No, no, no! This is no celebration. The older you get, the less pleasure you take in birthdays. I would love to be 60 again. Then I could show you something! No. I hope to make fine concerts with an orchestra I know and admire, to make a good impression with the works we have chosen. That's all I wish for."

Sanderling may wish he were 25 years younger. But the impression he gives, sitting in a bar at the Cumberland Hotel, speaking softly but distinctly above a continuous stream of hideous piped muzak, is one of abundant energy - and surely you need plenty of that to do justice to Beethoven's epic Leonore No 3 overture and Brahms's Third Symphony, as well as accompanying Mitsuko Uchida in Schumann's Piano Concerto, all in one evening, as he will be doing this Tuesday. "Yes, but there are things I realise I cannot do now. There are two works which can reduce me to tears - Mahler's Sixth Symphony and Bruckner's Ninth. But I have never conducted them. I wasn't young enough when I heard them for the first time, and I haven't had the time to work at them properly. The Mahler especially came to me too late. It has only really come to be performed and understood in the last 20 years. This is a work which brings back all the dreadful problems of the 20th century, even though it was written right at the beginning of the century. I re-live it so much when I hear it. But I haven't the strength to do it now."

Sanderling's experience of the "dreadful problems" of our century is matched by few today. As a young German in the 1920s and early 1930s, he experienced dramatic instabilities and, later, terrible certainties at first hand. As a young German of Jewish blood, he could only view the rise of the Nazis with increasing concern. In 1936 he fled East, to join relatives in the Soviet Union. There he was quickly engaged as conductor of the Moscow Radio Orchestra and later as co-conductor of the USSR's orchestral A-team, the Leningrad Philharmonic, working alongside Yevgeny Mravinsky - a name accorded near-deity status by some record-collectors. Not much is known about Mravinsky as a man: can Sanderling provide enlightenment? "He was a great personality. What more can I say?" All right - well, as a conductor? "He wasn't so much a conductor as an unsparing orchestral trainer and rehearsal artist. His rehearsals were an aesthetic delight."

Another great but enigmatic person figured prominently in Sanderling's work at this time: Shostakovich. One has to ask, did Sanderling gain any special insights into the mind behind the music? "He never liked to talk about his music. And we, his friends and colleagues, knew that, and we didn't ask him. His works were like novels. Take the Eighth Symphony, written in 1943, the height of the war - if ever there was a musical novel about its times! But for me it was not hard to understand because I lived through these times. I was a contemporary of Shostakovich, we lived in the same land, the same things happened to us, the same feelings. It is a problem for many of my colleagues that they have not shared this experience. It is one of those works which I conduct with special love and devotion."

When one speaks to Russians who knew Shostakovich, it is often hard to stop them from revealing "insights" allegedly gained direct from the composer ("Dmitry Dmitryevich told me this theme is Stalin, this theme Zhdanov..." and so on). It is difficult to know what to feel here: frustration at Sanderling's unwillingness to play the game, or admiration for his dignified refusal. It's striking, though, that when the conversation turns back to his early days in Berlin, he speaks more freely, and with obvious enthusiasm. "To grow up in Berlin at that time, to hear such conductors - Kleiber, Walter, Furtwangler, Klemperer, and someone one hears so little of today, who I believe was a great opera conductor, Leo Blech - it was wonderful. I believe it was a time the like of which we have never seen since - so much concentrated into one place, this city of music!"

Can recordings adequately recapture the spirit of these great figures? There are certainly enough of them in the record shops these days. "With Furtwangler, no. At Furtwangler's concerts, you had the feeling you were being spoken to personally, directly. With others, it was different. Klemperer was more - stupid word - `objective' - so it's easier to feel the message of Klemperer from records. But from Furtwangler one learnt that music is not just the work in itself - das Werk an sich. The musical work is not abstract. A Beethoven sonata is not written in a vacuum, but for a performer, and what one performer does with it will be different from what another does. If it were not so, a recording would be enough. But it isn't. At the same time, when Furtwangler conducted, the composer stood before you. You don't hear that on records."

"Objective" may well be a "stupid word", at least in this context, but Sanderling did bring it up. So would he prefer to think of himself as an "objective" or a "subjective" conductor - a Klemperer or a Furtwangler? "Oh, dear! I really can't say. What do these words mean? As a conductor, I take pains to understand the composer and to bring him to life again. Once, in Leningrad, I saw a score Mahler had marked for performance for Beethoven's Coriolan overture. Today nobody would tolerate what he did - it just wouldn't be allowed. Mahler was a very romantic conductor. He took all kinds of expressive freedoms with the music - but can you call it `subjective', when he strove so hard to reach the content and the spirit of the music? This question has haunted me. Perhaps we are too strict today - not too much expression, not too much feeling, because the score doesn't ask for it. But I must conduct with feelings so long as I am convinced that my feelings accord with the composer's. Otherwise, there's no point in conducting."

Sanderling conducts the Philharmonia: Beethoven, Brahms, Schumann (with Mitsuko Uchida), Tuesday 7.30pm; Beethoven, Weber, Bruch (with Sarah Chang), Sat 27 Sept, both at RFH, SBC, London SE1 (0171-960 4242). 85th Birthday Concert, with Barbara, Michael and Stefan Sanderling: Sun 7pm Wigmore Hall, London W1 (0171-935 2141)