BBC Legends BBCL 4248-2, 60:40 [Distrib. by Koch] ****:
A living legend among conductors, Kurt Sanderling (b. 1912) led this concert (17 April 1978) with the BBC Northern Symphony as a study in psychological contrasts, even finding within each selection aspects of emotional conflict. The first chord in the Overture to Mozart’s Don Giovanni announces categorically the intensity of Sanderling’s perceptions, a shrill D Minor that suddenly moves with mock-heroic abandon to the spirit of the Don’s sexual escapades.
Two of the Mahler symphonies, the Ninth and the Fourth, endured as cornerstones in Sanderling’s repertory, along with frequent excursions into The Song of the Earth. The juxtaposition of the bucolic and the grotesque in the Fourth is never lost on Sanderling, who urges the music forward while maintaining an austere focus on Mahler’s delicate orchestration and often stringent harmonies. The BBC trumpets project an urgency and sense of grandiosity that stand in stark contrast to the often agonized yearning in the strings. Viennese in spite of Sanderling’s musical pedigree, the Fourth conveys both nostalgia and psychic dementia at once, especially in its morbid fascination with the Death’s-head fiddle (leader Dennis Simon) in the second movement. The rustic trills in the second movement move with tender grace through the strings and cuckoos in the woodwinds, soon reaching an exalted vision–including the various timbres’ indulging in portamenti–despite the unnerving, augmented tunings of the violin.
The mystical aspects of the third movement Ruhevoll dominate us, much as they would were this performance led by Bruno Walter or Otto Klemperer. The poised serenity of the landscape immediately invokes Friedrich’s picture, “The Wanderer Above the Sea of Mist,” while the secondary theme anticipates the deep yearning of the Fifth Symphony’s Adagietto. The Wunderhorn effects, the magic of the natural landscape, suffuses the entire musical progression, and several of the musical periods end on a pedal point rife with the First Symphony. Yet the tempo does not drag; rather, the darker, meditative elements briskly look ahead to the kammermusiks of Paul Hindemith while the more raucous episodes look ahead to Kurt Weill. Felicity Lott (b. 1947) brings a thoroughly intelligent, sensitive voice to the bizarre mix of heavenly bliss and heavenly slaughter, her voice projecting the kind of faith that surpatheth understanding. The sensually pious music ends in broad strokes, and the recording stops at a silence that surely must have immediately exploded with the musicians themselves in full appreciation of a major contribution to the Mahler canon.