London Philharmonic Orchestra – Opening Concert 2006-7 Season

Sibelius
Lemminkäinen Legends – Lemminkäinen and the Maidens of Saari; The Swan of Tuonela
Berlioz
Les nuits d’été
Beethoven
Symphony No.6 in F, Op.68 (Pastoral)

Karen Cargill (mezzo-soprano)

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Paavo Berglund


Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 22 September, 2006
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

Despite Paavo Berglund’s physical frailty, this opening concert of the London Philharmonic’s new season was nothing if not substantial – and it showed the orchestra to be in rude health with some notably rich string-playing and well integrated woodwinds.

Compared to the better-known ‘Lemminkäinen’s Return’ and ‘The Swan of Tuonela’, ‘Lemminkäinen and the Maidens of Saari’ is all-too-seldom performed, so this performance was particularly welcome. After the first performances of the Four Lemminkäinen Legends in the 1890s Sibelius withdrew both ‘The Maidens of Saari’ and the second of the set (sometimes played third), ‘Lemminkainen in Tuonela’, only permitting the suite to be heard again in its complete form in 1935. One possible reason for the infrequent performance of ‘Maidens’ is that it is a substantial work running to a full 15 minutes, making it a less-than-obvious concert-opener and difficult to programme. This is a pity since it is Sibelius at his most joyous and passionate, a kind of musical road-movie, constantly driving onwards. On this occasion it received a quite electrifying reading of enormous power and conviction.

Fortunately this was being recorded for the LPO’s own label, as was ‘The Swan of Tuonela’. Berglund’s way with this most familiar of all of Sibelius’s works (along, of course, with Finlandia) was impassively unsentimental and magisterial; from Berglund this is a full-blown symphonic poem leaving one with those same feelings of awe one feels in the presence of undisturbed nature in the raw. There was a plangent dark-hued cor anglais solo from Sue Bohling and a sensitive cello contribution from guest principal, John Walz, and the work’s brief climax drew playing of a controlled passion and power such as one rarely encounters. It was a reading at once strangely unsettling and intensely memorable.

“Les nuits d’été” brought us the young Scottish mezzo Karen Cargill, joint-winner of the 2002 Kathleen Ferrier Award. There could be little doubt as to the sheer beauty of the voice. However, there have to be some reservations about the performance. Retaining a nearly full complement of strings was a mistake – the orchestral textures were consistently too thick – and militated against realising those super-fine bone-china textures which are so quintessentially Berlioz. Perhaps, because of these forces, Cargill brought a quasi-operatic delivery frequently at odds with the music’s interior world. Her rich tone certainly paid particular dividends in the penultimate song ‘Au cimetière’, its climax (“on the wings of music”) drawing a voluptuous response, but elsewhere a degree of monotony crept in. There is more variety between the songs – the lightness of ‘Vilanelle’, the aching loneliness of ‘Sur les lagunes’ and the plangent simplicity of ‘Absence’ – than was explored here.

For the ‘Pastoral’ Berglund also retained full strings – in fact there were almost as many strings as in the whole of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra for Sir Charles Mackerras’s recent Edinburgh Festival account (and nor did Berglund have antiphonal violins).That said, it is always welcome to hear Berglund in something other than the Scandinavian and Russian repertoire for which he is renowned and nothing he does is ever negligible. However, after Mackerras’s revelatory traversal, although this was full of affection and never less than agreeable, Berglund’s leisurely, string-dominated reading (the winds frequently scarcely audible behind a curtain of string sound) reminded of looking at one of those great classical landscape paintings by Claude Lorraine, but with the original glowingly rich colours viewed through a thick coat of darkening varnish. Beethoven himself remarked of the work that it is “feeling” rather than “tone-painting”. On this occasion the happy feelings on arriving in the country were muted and, after a leisurely scene by the brook, a lumbering view of peasants’ merrymaking and a distinctly non-scary storm, the performance culminated in a thanksgiving which was palpably short on joy and spiritual uplift. How ironic that the same conductor who can unleash the storm in Sibelius’s Tapiola to such devastating effect should prove so tame in Beethoven.

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