Thomas Sanderling – you can talk to him for hours about the most amazing things – is full of stories. The whole, complex relationship between Germans, Jews and Russians in the 20th century stands in front of you as a person when you meet him. A year ago he had been invited to Babyn Yar, to the “Women’s Gorge” on the outskirts of Kyiv, where in 1941 a horrific massacre of Jews had been carried out by the German occupiers, also with the participation of locals. There, on the occasion of the visit of the German Federal President to redesign the memorial, Sanderling conducted the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin in a performance of Dmitri Shostakovich’s thirteenth symphony – “Babi Yar”, based on a poem by Yevgeny Yevtuschenko, which also combated anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union had addressed.
Sanderling’s father, the conductor Kurt Sanderling, was a Jew who was expatriated from the German Reich by the Nazis in 1936 and saw no other way out than to flee to Stalin’s Soviet Union, where an uncle lived and where he married Nina Schey in 1941. When Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, the young married couple began hoarding veronal to avoid falling into Nazi hands alive. After being taken from Moscow to Alma-Ata, exhausted by fear and flight, they were about to overdose on Veronal at the end of November 1941 when word reached them that they were being taken to Novosibirsk and that Kurst Sanderling could conduct there with the Leningrader Philharmoniker work. Barely a year later, on October 2, 1942, Thomas Sanderling was born in Novosibirsk.
A year ago, Thomas Sanderling, who went to East Germany in 1960, to the West in 1983 and has lived in London for a long time, was voted number one in Russia in a poll of “Russia’s Outstanding Germans”. Since 2002 he had been a permanent guest conductor and since 2017 chief of the Novosibirsk Academic Symphony Orchestra, one of the top orchestras in Russia. But in early March 2022, shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine, he resigned. “The only thing that made me sick was watching the Russian news on TV about the war, which couldn’t be called that. If I had stayed, I would not have been able to look at myself in the mirror,” he told the FAZ
As a young man he had worked with Hans Swarowsky, Herbert von Karajan and Leonard Bernstein, but above all he had one of the great conductors of the 20th century at his side, his own father. Sanderling understands, which is becoming increasingly rare, something of the unity of the keynote in a work that must not get lost in the surface of a thousand interesting details. In his interpretation of Johannes Brahms’ fourth symphony, one hears with the first glowing, sad note that this music knows from the beginning that it is coming to an end, that against its own resistance, as it were, it is stepping back into time, into sounding, that it – true to the Bible verses later set to music by Brahms – it would prefer not to be, but from this tension between wanting not to be and having to be, a warm-hearted, elegiac beauty, a comforting companionship, emerges.
Sanderling has rendered outstanding services to the work of Mieczysław Weinberg, whose opera “The Idiot” helped achieve a breakthrough with its premiere in Mannheim, and whose symphonies were premiered outside of Russia. He also helped the orchestral work of Tchaikovsky’s master student Sergej Taneyev to gain more respect with emphatic, beautifully sounding recordings that have just been reissued by Naxos. Thomas Sanderling, a man of skill and decency, turns eighty this Sunday.