London Philharmonic: Berglund & Lill

Piano Concerto No.4 in G, Op.58
Symphony No.6 in D minor, Op.104
Symphony No.7 in C, Op.105

John Lill (piano)

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Paavo Berglund

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 6 December, 2003
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

This was a sensationally good concert, at once a labour of love and also the rich harvest of a lifetime’s association with Sibelius’s music on the part of Paavo Berglund, who has recorded Sibelius’s symphony cycle three times. However, at least in the UK, he seems too often taken for granted – receiving less than his due. Good, therefore, to hear him doing full justice to Sibelius’s elusive Sixth and Seventh Symphonies, music he knows and understands as well as any conductor living.

And, since his early, meteoric rise, John Lill has suffered similar critical neglect, his considerable qualities as a classical stylist frequently underestimated. This performance of the Beethoven concerto, whilst not accident free, was one to cherish. Lill’s playing and Berglund’s accompaniment allowed Beethoven his full stature and weight, muscular and masculine, without losing the work’s more sensitive moments; indeed, there were some magical pianissimos (and not just at the expected moments). The performance was also notable for the fine rapport between soloist and conductor, everything breathing, dovetailing and moving forward with the most natural gait. Lill played the usual cadenzas with authority in this traditional performance – in the very best sense of the word.

In an ideal world the two Sibelius symphonies would have been played without any break, so naturally does the atmosphere at the close of the Sixth seem to elide into the opening of the Seventh. One sensed that Berglund too would have relished the opportunity to let one flow into the other, but the audience applauded breaking the spell – if only for a moment.

Too often the Sixth has come across as Sibelius’s Pastoral, “emotion recollected in tranquillity”. Not here! The orchestral resources employed may be relatively modest, yet there was nothing small scale about Berglund’s interpretation. The first movement’s central climax generated a remarkable surge of power over its held pedal point – in how many other symphonies does the first double bass entry come 140 bars into a piece? The second movement was several worlds away from the genteel salon piece it is sometimes played as, emerging as altogether darker and more menacing, whilst the obsessive dactylic rhythm of the Scherzo flared to a controlled but volatile climax. After its radiant opening, the finale was dynamic and storm-tossed until a safe haven was reached with the golden closing bars, music of deep but mysterious consolation which seems to tell us that “our little lives are rounded with a sleep”.

The Seventh was equally remarkable. This is music Berglund knows in unrivalled depth. In the early-1970s Berglund went back to Sibelius’s manuscript after discovering some 400 discrepancies between the orchestral parts and the published score – often concerning incorrect or inaccurately placed dynamics.

This was music-making of immense patience, Berglund giving a masterclass in how to let long-range symphonic tensions culminate with complete naturalness, the music’s significant moments welling up seamlessly from somewhere deep inside the orchestra and arriving with immense majesty – Koussevitzky, another of the work’s great interpreters, referred to the Seventh as Sibelius’s Parsifal.

Too often this music has tempo changes imposed on it. With Berglund, however, no fences are rushed – to the unsympathetic listener this might appear unduly phlegmatic, but nothing could be further from the truth. This was conducting of tremendous passion (Berglund making vocal contributions from time to time), the rough-hewn LPO inside the heart of this music. One hopes that the recordings made by Floating Earth, and also of Berglund’s Sibelius 5 last May, can be given wide currency soon!

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