As we slouch toward a new year and the hope of a better decade, I'm enjoying a boxed set of recordings of the Berlin Philharmonic issued three years ago for their 125th anniversary. (I picked it up while in Berlin in September, and presented it to my parents for Christmas.) Against the backdrop of Germany's grim 20th history it's a heady mix, from Arthur Herz conducting an orchestral suite from Parsifal in 1913 (!) to Simon Rattle conducting Mahler's Sixth in 1987 and Nikolaus Harnoncourt's Bach in 2002 by way of Haydn, Mozart, Mendelssohn, Weber, Listz, Berlioz, Bruckner, Tchaikovsky, Suppé, Debussy, Ravel, Richard Strauss, Milhaud...
I'm flabbergasted that its 13 hours of live recordings include four Beethoven symphonies - the fifth (Furtwängler, 1943), the first (Furtwängler, 1954), the ninth (Karajan at the opening of the new Philharmonie, 1963) and the eighth (Barenboim in East Berlin right after the fall of the wall, 1989) - but no Brahms, though less surprised at the absence of the second Vienna school, Stravinsky, Bartok and newer music. Otherwise I'm delighted by the selections, which are both historically and aesthetically satisfying. For instance Erich Kleiber's 1935 recording of Schubert's unfinished symphony would be moving even if one didn't know that it was his last recording after resigning in disgust at Nazi hostility to modern music, but takes on a whole new symbolic power when you know that.
What's giving me goosebumps is a recording that almost finishes what was unfinished: Kurt Sanderling conducting Shostakovich's exquisite 15th symphony in 1999. I confess I wasn't even sure who Sanderling was before this. Born in 1912 in East Prussia, Sanderling was involved with the Berlin opera until Nazi antisemitism forced him to flee. He fled east in 1935, and spent 25 years in the USSR, where he became a music director of the Leningrad Philharmonic and a friend of Shostakovich's. Returning at the request of the DDR in 1960, he built up the (east) Berliner Sinfonie-Orchester, the eastern analog to Karajan and the (west) Berliner Philharmoniker.
Another quarter century later Sanderling conducted the Berlin Philharmonic's official reunification concert in 1990, reuniting more than just the divided history of Berlin. An amazing Lebenslauf, and, here at 77, an amazing performance of Shostakovich.