An Interview with Thomas Sanderling
Thomas Sanderling was born in 1942 in Novosibirsk, during the exile of his father Kurt. He studied in Leningrad, the city of his childhood and youth, then moved to Berlin to continue. He made his conducting debut in his early 20s and could soon be seen in major concert halls and opera houses throughout the world. I met him on a cold Sunday afternoon at the western Berlin apartment of a friend.
VAN: Your biography inspires respect. What does that word mean to you?
Thomas Sanderling: A lot. For me it’s mainly about respect for what you have learned and can learn. Since I was a child, I’ve been lucky enough to meet people who were not just impressive personalities, but who taught me so much: Yevgeny Mravinsky, David Oistrakh, Sviatoslav Richter, or Emil Gilels. Later I was able to meet Walter Felsenstein in Berlin. These were all artistic personalities of the highest caliber.
But there was one person I met who I knew was an exceptional genius. I’m talking about Dmitri Shostakovich. He was fragile, his clothes were nothing special, but when he entered a room, everything went completely silent. This aura, the effect he had on others—it didn’t matter whether they knew who he was or not. It’s impossible to explain. It didn’t even matter what he said. It just happened!
Shostakovich’s works are known for their biting, ironic sense of humor. Was the composer himself a funny person?
Yes, but you had to learn to understand his sense of humor. My father helped prepare me a little bit, when I had just started working with Shostakovich. And when he was around people whom he liked and cared about, he would make these little ironic observations. They would come out of nowhere, and then they’d simply disappear…
…you mean he would take them back?
No! He would imply something—and then move onto another topic. Like a kind of mini cadenza [laughs]! Even before personal catastrophe hit, in January 1936, in the form of a scathing review of his opera “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk”—ordered by Stalin personally—Shostakovich’s humor was full of bitterness. I recently conducted the premiere of Weinberg’s opera “The Idiot” at the Mariinsky Theater, and on my day off between concerts I went to a place in St. Petersburg where you can read Shostakovich’s letters to his friends Isaak Glikman and Ivan Sollertinski. The letters are full of bitterness—up until the very end. It was a bitter sense of humor, but the humor would lose out, and then the laughter gets caught in your throat.
For my generation, Shostakovich symphonies have become classics, almost historical music already. What is relevant or current for you about these pieces?
My father always said, and I agree with him, that Shostakovich would become a classic early, and stay that way. Like Beethoven, Bartók, and Stravinsky. Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony is an essential part of Western culture, and the context, or the circumstances in which it was created, don’t matter so much. It stands as a work of genius. And that’s true of Shostakovich as well. By the way, he was also up-to-date on the newest work of the avant-garde. Composers like Boulez, Stockhausen, Nono…
Possibly. Shostakovich was interested in their work, and had a lot of respect for these composers. But unlike Stravinsky, Shostakovich never attempted to join up with them.
Did he have a clear position that made him not want to?
I think it came from a place of absolute honesty about himself. Rachmaninoff once said, point-blank, that he wanted to write the kind of music that wasn’t being written anymore, and I think this was similar.
You mentioned the conductor Yevgeny Mravinsky. His recordings of the Tchaikovsky Symphonies are personal favorites: there’s a fast bass passage in the “Pathétique,” for instance, that he gets so incredibly precise, more than anyone else I know. How did he achieve that?
Mravinsky belonged to the generation of dictators on the podium. He also had the power to simply let musicians go, or, if he was going on tour, to not take a musician with him. Tours were incredibly important for Russian orchestras back then. And so he was vested with a kind of power that doesn’t exist today, which, by the way, I think is for the best.
Another reason is that Mravinsky wasn’t a spontaneous music-maker at all. Which he said about himself. He was always incredibly well-prepared, even when he was conducting a work that he knew inside-out and backwards. He would do long, detailed sectionals and make these exacting rehearsal plans. Besides, he spent his entire life working almost exclusively with the Leningrad Philharmonic.
By the way, the Moscow approach to Tchaikovsky is very different to the St. Petersburg approach. In St. Petersburg they play him classically, with a lot of thought—maybe even intellectually—but I think that’s the right approach. In Moscow Tchaikovsky sounds wilder, more passionate. St. Petersburg is a little more tasteful, more aristocratic. It’s like the way Italians criticize German interpretations of Puccini, saying that it’s far too sentimental. It’s similar with Tchaikovsky, even within Russia.
You also mentioned the composer Mieczysław Weinberg, who was a close friend of Shostakovich’s. Weinberg’s music is going through somewhat of a renaissance right now, and he often gets compared to Shostakovich, though I’m not sure if the comparison makes sense. What do you think?
Weinberg’s life was overshadowed by the murder of his entire family in the Holocaust. I’m conducting German premieres of his Symphony No. 7 and his last finished Symphony, No. 21 “Kaddish,” in 2017. In both of these works, life, survival, and the Holocaust are clearly important themes. They were the themes of his life.
So there’s a bassoon theme from the third movement of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 4 that goes like this [Sanderling sings the theme]. That’s yiddish! It’s clearly inspired by Mahler. The Jewish element in Shostakovich’s music comes up when he is dealing with sadness and repression. But with Weinberg, the Jewish element is an expression of his entire existence.
Would you say that Weinberg is the “more Jewish” of the two composers, then?
You could put it like that, yes. An important moment in Weinberg’s life was when he played the celeste and piano part in Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5, as an orchestra sub. Weinberg had already started composing by then, and a small group of people had started to recognize his talent. So Weinberg sent some compositions to Shostakovich. Despite the doubts that Weinberg had, Shostakovich was very impressed, and that’s how their friendship started.
Why do you think it took so long for the Weinberg renaissance to happen?
He was very repressed under the Soviet Union. Insiders knew of him, though. His works were played by people like Oistrakh, Gilels, Kirill Kondrashin, and Leonid Kogan, after all. My father introduced Weinberg’s Symphony No. 5 to Kondrashin, who conducted the German premiere. I recommended the opera “The Passanger” to the director David Pountney [who staged it at the Bregenzer Festspiele in Austria in 2010]. The opera “The Madonna and the Soldier” was withdrawn from performance in St. Petersburg—Shostakovich tried to convince them to perform it after all, unfortunately without success. “The Idiot” was also done in the 1980s, but in a very reduced form, with a smaller ensemble. So the version I did in 2013 at the opera in Mannheim was the real premiere.
I’m also the Vice-President of the International Weinberg Society. Our goal is to generate interest in his music. In the U.S., for example, there’s room for him to be discovered even more. It’s tragic, of course, that he’s not around to experience his own renaissance. What’s interesting is that all the musicians who I’ve done Weinberg with so far have noticed as they play: “This is simply good music.”
Is there a concert hall or an opera house where, when you enter, and no matter how uncomfortable your flight was, whatever mood you’re in, you think, “This is where I feel at home”?
Good question. I feel generally at home when I’m in a good hall with an excellent acoustic—in Germany, in the fantastic new Helsinki Music Center, at the Palace of Music in Budapest, the Meyerson Center in Dallas, or one of Japan’s excellent halls… Three weeks ago I was at the St. Petersburg Philharmonic. Have you ever been?
That white hall in St. Petersburg…it’s my childhood! The artist entrance, the stairs up to the green rooms. When I go inside, I leave everything else behind on the street.
Is there a musical project you still want to take on—maybe something utopian?
There’s something, but it’s not so spectacular. I’m convinced that the second to last revisions of Bruckner’s Symphonies are the best versions. Just to put that out there…for me, that’s the real Bruckner. I find the final versions more academic, smoother—sure, they’re more practical to play. Like they’ve gotten a final sanding down from a master carpenter. We know that Bruckner was a very sensitive, self-doubting person. But the second to last versions of his Symphonies are so visionary, so daring, so forward-looking. That’s something I’m interested in. ¶