Edinburgh International Festival – 16th August 2001(2)

Symphony No.4 in F minor
Symphony No.5 in E minor

Russian National Orchestra conducted by Paavo Berglund

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 16 August, 2001
Venue: Usher Hall, Edinburgh

This programme had the pre-concert stimulus of a potentially exciting combination of orchestra and conductor, and the rare opportunity to juxtapose two symphonies that usually fill a concert’s second half.

It is said that familiarity breeds contempt. During Mikhail Pletnev’s (recently completed) tenure the RNO has played and recorded oodles of Tchaikovsky – a London ’Pathetique’ a couple of years ago was cool and slack; recordings have been inconsistent.

At this concert the RNO was a revelation – this was playing of energy and commitment. More than that there was a joy emanating from the Orchestra that spoke of conviction and being convinced. The RNO appeared to be thoroughly enjoying the experience of playing this familiar music for its Finnish guest. Deep and lustrous strings, characterful woodwind, the brass persuaded by Berglund to be powerful enough without occluding other parts. In matters of blend, balance and sonority, Berglund was painstaking.

Paavo Berglund, a consistently fine champion of Sibelius, brought all his long experience of that master symphonist’s organic conceptions to Tchaikovsky; as he has shown in his recent, outstanding, set of Brahms symphonies (Ondine), Berglund melds structure and emotional content into something deeply satisfying. In essence, both of these Tchaikovsky symphonies emerged as cohesive and soulful in spontaneous, detail-refreshed performances.

The Fifth was glorious from start to finish; only a couple of reservations emerged in a gripping Fourth. Berglund’s structural awareness is uncanny – here is a conductor who can traverse the stormy development of the Fourth’s first movement with no lack of drama and arrive at the recapitulation with a consistency of pulse that links directly to the exposition’s initial unveiling. The waltz-like episode had a delightful lilt and softness of expression, yet how integrated it was. I wish Berglund had brought more desperation to the coda – through a faster tempo – though this would have unbalanced the movement’s design; equally a slightly more yielding tempo for the following ’canzone’ would have been beneficial – that said, Berglund never lost its phrasal ’centre’ and revealed ’voice’ and accompaniment fastidiously.

This fastidiousness allowed details to shine anew. As he shows in his Brahms cycle, no matter how familiar the music, there are still new things to be heard or to be heard in a different way. In No.5’s exposition, trombone accents were revealed as being part of the expressive fabric; in the finale’s development, viola accents emerged viscerally from the tutti. The coda found a trombone line given rare prominence – Berglund’s eye-contact with the player concerned confirmed his intention that this interjection be heard.

With aural revelations, structural cohesion and emotionalism in near-perfect accord, the wonder was Berglund’s carefully charted and oh-so-careful preparation – be it dynamic ’dips’ or legato phrasing – never sounded pedantic or in-check; indeed, openness and vigour were the hallmarks. Antiphonal violins enhanced the two sections’ dialogue.

The symphonies themselves, written a decade apart with Manfred in between, might both be described as ’darkness to light’ pieces – 4’s fateful fanfares to the energetic (here exhilarating) close; 5’s melancholy to triumphant peroration, Berglund emphasising the ultimate four chords defiantly. 4’s song and dance elements were deftly handled. 5’s purposefulness and vibrancy were consistently potent, its sweetly turned third movement waltz never cloyed; the passions of the preceding ’Andante cantabile’, with a wonderfully lyrical horn solo, were ardent. 4’s pizzicato scherzo, sparkling here, had its peasant tune and ’circus’ brass wittily introduced. The cumulative tension of both symphonies’ outer movements was inexorable.

It’s rare to find every aspect of Tchaikovsky’s invention – melodic, emotional, formal, characterisation, scoring – so comprehensively exposed and united. Berglund and the RNO achieved this to compelling effect.

For encores, an ebullient ’Trepak’ from The Nutcracker and a touchingly affectionate ’Waltz’ from Serenade for Strings; something further was anticipated, instead Berglund simply announced, “I’m sorry, but we must go now.”

A recorded Tchaikovsky cycle from these artists would be a mouth-watering prospect.

  • BBC Radio 3 broadcast, 20 September

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