He was the last remnant of the generations of conductors for whom classical music was music itself. He was a Jew who survived Hitler and a German who survived Stalin. He was Shostakovich's closest friend among conductors and offered a warmer interpretation of Shostakovich's music than the chilly shocks of Mravinsky.
(Rachmaninov's 1st Symphony with the Leningrad Philharmonic. Dunno why it's accompanying this video...)
From the time he was thirty years old, he was the co-conductor of the Leningrad Philharmonic with Yevgeny Mravinsky. The arrangement lasted for eighteen years, until the Soviets ordered him to East Berlin to lead the Berlin Symphony - designed to be the Communist answer to the Berlin Philharmonic. Sanderling was much beloved wherever he lead orchestras and was named conductor emeritus of both the Madrid Symphony Orchestra and the Philharmonia Orchestra of London.
(The Berlin Symphony led by Sanderling. Playing the opening of Sibelius's 4th Symphony)
When he was 90 years old, Sanderling shocked the world by doing something hardly any other conductor had ever done: he retired. Not that he needed to, Sanderling was still doing fabulous work. But it was particularly shocking because Kurt Sanderling was the last giant in a generation of conductors that had all too many giants. But perhaps all people needed to understand his decision was there in his music-making.
(The Final movement of Mahler's 10th - beginning. Sanderling was perhaps the most important early champion of this unfinished work.)
He did not conduct with the outsize interpretive personality of a Bernstein or Celibidache. Sanderling's music-making was every bit as personally involved as theirs, but he never seemed to impose it. If you could tell that a performance was Sanderling's, it was because of their complete faith in patience. The tempos were always relaxed, the sound was always warm, yet you still found yourself utterly absorbed by the drama.
(Slow Beethoven with Klemperer's Philharmonia...)
Like his hero, Otto Klemperer, Sanderling was in no hurry. He had an emphatically 19th century view of structure, giving huge works by Bruckner, Mahler and Shostakovich all the time they needed and more to unfurl and absorbing the listener totally. What might seem boring at minute 5 seems utterly mesmerizing by minute 50.
(Der Abschied from Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde)
There are some musicians who simply view music in grand terms, taking the grandest, most weighty possible approach even when it's not completely warranted. Sanderling was a musician who leant himself well to music on a gigantic scale. For composers who aimed for the epic scale like Bruckner, Mahler and Shostakovich, it was a perfect approach (what might a Sanderling Ring Cycle have sounded like?). For composers like Beethoven, Brahms and Sibelius, whose tendencies leaned toward something slightly more intimate, Sanderling blew them up to his grand scale. It wasn't always right, but it was always interesting.
(Just in case people thought Sanderling was all darkness and ultraseverity...)