Sunday 28 January 2024

From Classical to Romantic: I chat to Michael Sanderling about the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra & Le Piano Symphonique festival

Wagner: Götterdämmerung suite - Michael Sanderling, Lucerne Symphony Orchestra - Le Piano Symphonique, Lucerne (Photo: Philipp Schmidli)
Wagner: Götterdämmerung suite - Michael Sanderling, Lucerne Symphony Orchestra - Le Piano Symphonique, Lucerne 2024 (Photo: Philipp Schmidli)

Michael Sanderling is the current chief conductor of the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra, responsible not only for the orchestra's regular season at KKL Lucerne but for conducting the orchestra in concerts at the orchestra's Le Piano Symphonique festival. [see my interview with the festival's intendant, Numa Bischof Ullman]. This year, the orchestra was accompanying the Liszt cycle (the two piano concertos and Totentanz with pianist Yoav Levanon) and Grieg's Piano Concerto (with pianist Elisabeth Leonskaja), but alongside the performance of Liszt's Piano Concerto No. 2 the orchestra was also playing Michael Sanderling's suite from Wagner's Gotterdammerung.

My chat with Michael Sanderling too place at a busy time, fitted in amongst his conducting and rehearsal commitments during the festival, as well as the planning for the recording sessions the following week.

Michael comments that if you have an orchestra running a festival, like Le Piano Symphonique, it does not disturb things if the orchestra offers something of its own. Besides, if you consider Liszt's piano works then Wagner is not far away, whilst Wagner spent a significant amount of time in Switzerland including living at the Villa Tribschen near Lucerne (it is still a museum).

Michael also points out that the sound cosmos of the piano is only topped by the organ (an instrument also featured in this year's festival) and he feels that he continues this with the big sound world of Wagner's opera. Also it will be one of the biggest pieces that the orchestra has ever done.

Michael is proud of the fact that his suite, which has had one previous performance, includes only notes by Wagner without out a single invention by Michael. Everybody does this sort of orchestral selection from Wagner differently, but Michael feels that it was an opportunity to show the richness, beauty and depth of Wagner's Gotterdammerung.

When I ask how Le Piano Symphonique fits with the orchestra's regular season, Michael smiles and says that it doesn't! He is happy and proud to be part of it, and to be able to show off the orchestra to some of the world's finest pianists and an international audience, and to demonstrate how quick the orchestra's development has been.

This development of the orchestra is one of the major subjects of Michael's first term with the orchestra, moving the orchestra into the big German Romantic repertoire. Under Michael, the orchestra has been going further than before, performing large works such as Strauss' Eine Alpensinfonie, and symphonies by Mahler and Bruckner, a process that Michael describes as fantastic.

In ethos, the orchestra is a chamber orchestra in its mood, behaviour and achievement, but Michael says that hits makes it easier to go further. To perform the great Romantic repertoire, the players need to be able to listen to each other and to react, but use less rhetoric than Classical repertoire, but also play longer lines. All this without losing the chamber music approach that the orchestra is known for.

And as Michael points out, all this music can be boiled down to a relationship between two tones, though in Romantic music this might be two lines or two movements, the view has become a little bigger. For this to work, everybody has to be in condition. This is the bigger challenge, getting feeling for the long lines and long phrases. Michael adds that the orchestra is keen to discover this new style.

Whilst movement the orchestra towards playing larger, late Romantic music Michael has been at pains not to change the way they play earlier repertoire. The orchestra was keen to make the journey, one that Michael comments everyone orchestra needs to do but not all are able to do it. He is very proud of the orchestra's chamber approach, and comments that is is easier to add bigger symphonic thoughts to chamber music.

Michael has already recorded the complete Brahms symphonies with the orchestra on Warner Classics, along with Schoenberg's orchestration of Brahms' Piano Quartet No. 1. Michael started with Brahms on purpose because the symphonies combines the Romantic style with classical language and the recording demonstrates the ability of the orchestra.

The orchestra has developed a strong relationship with Warner and the week after the 2024 Le Piano Symphonique festival they were going into the studio with pianist Yoav Levanon to record both Liszt piano concertos and the Totentanz.

Whilst Michael has recorded a number of complete symphonies (Brahms, Beethoven and Shostakovich), he is as happy to enjoy a single symphony as a set. The Beethoven and Shostakovich cycles had a very particular origin. Facing Beethoven's 250th anniversary with his then orchestra, the Dresden Philharmonic, Michael wondered what they could do. He felt that the world did not need another Beethoven cycle, but wanted to recognise the memory of them for later musicians and composers was strong. Shostakovich was the last symphonic composer who could be compared to Beethoven.

Each disc was originally issued with a pairing of Beethoven and Shostakovich symphonies, Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 and Shostakovich's Symphony no. 13, both having humanist ideals, the first symphonies, fresh and a little rough. Michael emphasises that the recordings were not done with the idea of having a box of nine Beethoven symphonies and a box of 15 Shostakovich, though the record company has issued these as well.

When it came to Brahms, Michael learned that Warner Classics would be willing to record the symphonies with the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra. The orchestra had not recorded them before, and Michael was keen to be the one who led the orchestra in their first recording of them.

Michael was originally a cellist as he says he used to have a serious profession! He is the son of conductor Kurt Sanderling and had a twenty year career as a cellist. His two brothers became conductors, and Michael was sure that he would not conduct. His becoming a conductor was not deliberate, he was playing in a conductorless chamber orchestra in 2002 when the leader became sick so he stood in.

In 2011 he became chief conductor of the Dresden Philharmonic Orchestra, starting when the orchestra was leaving its home, the Kulturpalast in Dresden which was being re-developed. This meant that the orchestra had to be a guest in five different venues, none of which were good. He knew that this was going to happen when he was engaged, and it was his duty to keep the orchestra's quality. As well as the itinerant performances, they did recordings and as a result the orchestra became more flexible. Paradoxically it became more stable because of the recordings so that when they returned to the Kulturpalast the orchestra was in better form.

Michael Sanderling next conducts the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra at KKL on 27 March 2024 in Greetings from Prague, a programme of music by Smetana and Dvorak including Dvorak's Biblical Songs with bass Jan Martiník, full details from the orchestra's website.

Planet Hugill at Le Piano Symphonique 2024

  • A winter week focusing on the piano yet hosted by an orchestra: intendant Numa Bischof Ullmann introduces Lucerne's Le Piano Symphonique & looks forward to the 2025 festival - interview
  • Homage to Liszt: pianist Benjamin Grosvenor on astonishing form in Liszt and Brett Dean - concert review
  • Liszt Cycle 2: From large-scale Liszt and Wagner to intimate Schumann and Schubert concert review
  • Made in Switzerlandtenor Daniel Behle and pianist Oliver Schnyder combine musicality and intelligence - concert review
  • Liszt Cycle 1: From poetic Liszt and Grieg concertos to a little bit of magic from Martha Argerich and friends - concert review

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