Born in Arys (East Prussia, now Orzysz in Poland), Sanderling began his career as a repetiteur at the Berlin State Opera, but was dismissed in 1933 as a non-Aryan, and three years later was forced to leave Germany. He arrived in Russia in 1936 where he worked with the Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra. From 1942 to 1960 he assisted Yevgeny Mravinsky as joint Principal Conductor of the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra. During these years Sanderling was very close to Dmitri Shostakovich, and became one of his finest interpreters. Many Philharmonia supporters will remember Sanderling’s final performance with the Orchestra in September 2000, an extraordinary and deeply moving performance of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 15.
Sanderling returned to East Germany in 1960 where he led the Berlin Symphony Orchestra and the Dresden Staatskapelle with great distinction. He made his Philharmonia début in 1972, taking the indisposed Otto Klemperer’s place on the podium, and subsequently became closely associated with the Orchestra. He was appointed Conductor Emeritus in 1996. Kurt Sanderling retired from the concert platform in January 2002 after a musical career spanning 70 years.
Esa-Pekka Salonen, Principal Conductor and Artistic Advisor of the Philharmonia Orchestra, commented:
Kurt Sanderling was one of the greatest musicians of our time. His integrity was total, and his distaste for the more superficial aspects of the music business was profound. His interpretations often had a revelatory quality, as if the music unfolded the way it did because it had to, not because of somebody steering it.
"Years ago, after having witnessed a splendid, vivid and athletic, yet at times incredibly tender Beethoven Symphony No. 2, I thought of a completely unholy metaphor for Maestro Sanderling’s art. There was nothing ‘new’ about the performance; it was more like a vintage car painstakingly and lovingly restored, every detail polished to its original glory – and beyond. It was familiar but fresh, respectful of tradition but novel at the same time. I’m not sure how exactly he achieved that, but I (along with so many others) was grateful for having experienced it."
Alistair Mackie, Chairman and Joint Principal Trumpet of the Philharmonia Orchestra, commented:
"There are few conductors of the 20th century who commanded the respect and affection of orchestral musicians like Kurt Sanderling. He was revered as a man and as a musician. The knowledge he had amassed through a lifetime of working with the greatest composers and performers of his age was brought to bear on his music making with an intense, but often humorous, focus. He conducted the Philharmonia until nearly 90 years of age and latterly would begin each new rehearsal period with a wry smile and the words "still here". His rehearsals were often coloured with imagery to describe how a passage should sound and musicians still exchange stories about their favourites. I remember a passage of Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony where violins play a light staccato melody above slow trombone chords: "There are children playing in the garden" he said "but inside the house there lies a dead body". Ultimately I remember him as a man who cared deeply about music and had the utmost respect for composers’ wishes. I remember many occasions when he would insist musicians write his instructions in their parts and then urge them to remember these instructions, even when playing the piece for other conductors. We did, we still do, and the Philharmonia continues to benefit from the influence of this wonderful man."
David Whelton, Managing Director of the Philharmonia Orchestra commented:
"The passing of Kurt Sanderling, with his links to Otto Klemperer and the cultural world from which the Philharmonia Orchestra was born, marks the end of an era.
"Sanderling was a giant among conductors; he had the capacity to reveal the structure and power of the great symphonic repertoire with extraordinary clarity.
"Throughout the 1980s and 90s his performances with the Philharmonia were eagerly awaited events, and, whenever possible, we invited him to open and close our London season.
"Sanderling's readings of the Shostakovich Symphonies, in particular Nos. 5, 6, 8 and 15, were legendary. For the Orchestra to be conducted from the score that had the composer’s own markings was an unforgettable experience. Thankfully, his performance of the 15th Symphony was recorded at the Royal Festival Hall in 2000 at what sadly proved to be his last concert with the Philharmonia Orchestra.
"Kurt Sanderling's monumental performances of the symphonies of Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms and Bruckner were also highlights of our London seasons. The Beethoven Cycle recorded in 1980 continues to hold its own amongst its contemporaries, as do his recordings made for Teldec with the Philharmonia in the 1990s.
"Sanderling enjoyed a warm relationship with the members of the Philharmonia, who never tired of his distinctive brand of acerbic humour. I count myself very fortunate to have had the privilege of working for so many years with one of the Philharmonia's - and the 20th century’s - greatest conductors, whose musicianship and integrity will forever remain in our memory."