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Kurt Sanderling, 98, conductor acclaimed for subtlety, restraint

Mr. Sanderling conducted the New York Philharmonic in 1984. Mr. Sanderling conducted the New York Philharmonic in 1984. (New York Times)
By William Grimes
New York Times / September 23, 2011

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NEW YORK -- Kurt Sanderling, an often acclaimed German-born conductor who spent most of his career in the Communist world after finding refuge from the Nazis there during World War II, died Saturday in Berlin. He was 98.

Mr. Sanderling was known for subtlety, intelligence, and restraint as a conductor and for his insightful performances of the symphonies of Dmitri Shostakovich, a friend and colleague.

Because he spent most of his career in the Soviet Union and East Germany, Mr. Sanderling remained a connoisseur’s taste for Western classical listeners. It was not until the 1960s, when he began making appearances at international festivals and as a guest conductor with Western orchestras, that he developed the larger reputation that might have been his under different circumstances. His interpretations of Brahms, Mahler, and above all Shostakovich marked him as a conductor of rare clarity and sensitivity to nuance, understated almost to a fault.

Theodore W. Libbey Jr., reviewing the recordings of Beethoven’s symphonies that he made with the Philharmonia Orchestra of London in the early 1980s, wrote in The New York Times: “His is the Apollonian view: He draws back from releasing the elemental forces, nor does he seek the extremes of orchestral scale that are to be found in the more Promethean, though otherwise dissimilar, approaches of Herbert von Karajan and Georg Solti, or that come through in the Dionysiac performances of Leonard Bernstein.’’

Mr. Sanderling’s budding career with the Berlin State Opera was cut short when the Nazis came to power and removed him from his post because he was Jewish. He fled to Moscow in 1935 and, after conducting the Moscow Radio Orchestra, joined Yevgeny Mravinsky as a director of the Leningrad Philharmonic, which eventually took its place among the world’s great ensembles.

In 1960 he returned to East Germany and conducted the Berlin Symphony Orchestra for the next 17 years, as well as the Dresden Staatskapelle, from 1964 to 1967. He began conducting at festivals in Prague, Salzburg, Vienna, and Warsaw and made guest appearances with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the New Philharmonia Orchestra, as it was then known, in London and the Nippon Symphony Orchestra in Tokyo.

Mr. Sanderling was born in Arys, East Prussia (now Orzysz, Poland). He studied piano in Koenigsberg and Berlin before joining the Berlin State Opera as a repetiteur, or rehearsal director, working with Wilhelm Furtwaengler and Erich Kleiber.

After being dismissed, he remained in Germany and worked for the Jewish Cultural Foundation. When relatives in the Soviet Union invited him for a holiday, he accepted and stayed.

“I went where I could get work,’’ he told The Los Angeles Times in 1990.

After assisting Georges Sebastian at the Moscow Radio Orchestra, he became the conductor of the Kharkiv Philharmonic Orchestra in 1939, conducting Shostakovich’s Sixth Symphony shortly after its premiere.

In 1942, while in Novosibirsk, Siberia, he met the composer during the Leningrad Philharmonic’s rehearsals for the Eighth Symphony and the two developed a close personal and professional relationship.

“He is the only conductor I know who talks freely about the musical and nonmusical aspects of Shostakovich - and the only one whom the orchestra will tolerate doing that,’’ Ara Guzelimian, the artistic administrator of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, told Classical Music magazine in 1995.

In rehearsals of the Eighth Symphony with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Mr. Sanderling told the orchestra the piccolo solo in the second movement is the whistling of a young army officer who has just gotten a weekend pass and heads down the road.

Knowledgeable collectors cherished his recordings of Sibelius, Prokofiev, and Bruckner. In the 1990s he recorded the Beethoven piano concertos with Mitsuko Uchida and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra.