Berglund and the LPO – 18th June

Four Last Songs
Symphony No.8 in C minor, Op.65

Jane Eaglen (soprano)
London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Paavo Berglund

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 18 June, 2002
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

Conductors who guide rather than galvanise need orchestras to address the infinitesimal; equally, when a performance has finished as sound but is not over, especially music of import, then stocktaking silence is required before applause. Not so for Shostakovich here – all-too-early clapping broke the spell of the silent bars.

The LPO’s group-personality doesn’t do irony; such moments as the circus-march that saunters in halfway through the second ’Scherzo’ lacked edge. Nor, quite, does it have an implacable sense of ensemble, nor the wherewithal to raise the roof. Such qualities would have benefited Shostakovich’s war-meshed symphony. Ensemble was occasionally less than crisp, the percussion sloppy in the link to the fourth movement passacaglia; the most nerve-exposed passages, dressed in stomach-kicking dissonance, lacked emotional punch.

Berglund’s masterly interpretation placated these reservations. He sees this music whole – not sensational, over-theatrical or obvious. His charting to climaxes, placing of contours within the overall design, was unflinching. What might be termed Berglund’s Sibelian approach – nothing superfluous, a focus on essentials – brought haunted textural sparseness and intense honesty to Shostakovich’s first movement lamentation and outrage. The separating of woodwind and string lines related a keen ear for counterpoint and incident (one of the glories of his revelatory recorded Brahms cycle). The derisive piccolo and sardonic bass clarinet stood out, and the strings excelled in veiled and inward dialogue, clarified by degrees of vibrato to bring expressional shifts to the passacaglia’s subterranean labyrinth, a shaft of light gradually perceived; from this, optimism grows – Berglund plants seeds that are organic.

As he has shown over many years conducting Sibelius, and when he breathed new life into Tchaikovsky at last year’s Edinburgh Festival, Berglund has a knack of exposing music’s locus – in Shostakovich a blend of circumstance, consciousness and musical structure: the composer’s chronicle and message, and music’s divine right to be itself. The hope-suggesting closing bars would have hung in the air – save for an ignorant punter.

Four Last Songs is high on my list of works needing a moratorium, though inclusion here was a salutary reminder of contemporaneous events – octogenarian Strauss in the late ’forties completing his musical valediction; Shostakovich, in his ’thirties and living through conflict in 1943, writing his Eighth Symphony. The Strauss was uneventful, soporific despite flowing tempi, enlivened by occasional unearthing of detail not usually heard (the LPO’s uningratiating horns aside); Jane Eaglen, although warming to her task, and at her best in quiet passages, was decidedly questionable in matters of intonation and tone production.

The LPO’s 2001/2 season turned full-circle – the Strauss unexpectedly begun it a few days after ’September 11’. A simple question punctuates Shostakovich’s coda: what next?

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