Kurt Sanderling, Conductor Who Lived Amid Soviet Turmoil, Dies at 98

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Kurt Sanderling, a conductor whose career path embodied the entwinement of politics and art in 20th-century Europe, died Saturday in Berlin, just two days shy of his 99th birthday. The cause of death was old age, said his son, the conductor Stefan Sanderling.

Sanderling retired from conducting at age 90, in 2002. The bulk of his career, however, took shape in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Surviving dictatorships and cultural prejudice as a Polish- (then East Prussia-) born Jew, Sanderling became a renowned interpreter of Romantic composers like Brahms, Beethoven and Schumann, as well as Dmitri Shostakovich, his personal friend. When he performed Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1991, he was the oldest living conductor to have worked with the composer directly.

Sanderling was born on Sept. 19, 1912 in Arys, East Prussia. He was six years old when East Prussia became a German exclave, the first of a series of political upheavals that would later shape his musical life. “Others made history; I made music,” Sanderling said. Indeed, one can trace 20th-century European history through Sanderling’s conducting posts.

In 1933, as the Nazis rose to power, Sanderling was fired from his first job as the rehearsal director of the Berlin State Orchestra (now the Deutsche Opera) for being “non-Aryan." He fled to Moscow in 1936 where he worked for a time with the Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra. In 1941, he was appointed conductor of the Leningrad Philharmonic, assisting Evgeny Mravinsky. When Germany invaded Russia that same year, the ensemble was sent to Siberia, by Stalin, for “protection”; it was in Siberia that Sanderling met Shostakovich. (The composer’s Seventh Symphony was dedicated to Soviets who died in the 1941 German invasion.)

While conducting the Leningrad Philharmonic in Siberia, Sanderling established a close personal relationship with Shostakovich, whose Symphonies he conducted extensively. Their relationship proved mutually beneficial. Shostakovich imbued his compositions with the struggles of Soviet people behind the Iron Curtain; Sanderling’s life experiences under Nazi and Communist regimes made him perhaps the best-informed interpreter of Shostakovich’s work. “He and his music were conditioned by the world he was living in,” Sanderling said of Shostakovich in a 1996 interview.

In recounting his arrival in the Soviet Union in 1936, Sanderling said, “I didn’t understand anything of what was going on politically and I had a lot of difficulty understanding the language as well. The Fifth Symphony [of Shostakovich] was the first contemporary work with which I was confronted, and I got the impression: yes – that’s exactly it, that’s our life here.”

Shortly after Stalin’s death in 1953, Sanderling was invited to work with the Berlin Symphony Orchestra, a Communist rival of the Berlin Philharmonic, where he stayed until 1977. His last big career move was from East Berlin to the West. Sanderling’s late career was spent as a respected guest conductor, working with Philharmonics of Madrid, London, Nippon and Los Angeles, among others.

His recordings include sets of the complete Beethoven symphonies with the Philharmonia Orchestra, and the piano concertos with pianist Mitsuko Uchida. While Sanderling would live amidst political turmoil most of his life, critics noted that Sanderling’s focus remained a nuanced, highly intelligent and humane musicality.

Sanderling is survived by his three sons, all conductors.

Sanderling conducts Sibelius (audio only)