LPO/Berglund – 31 May

Tannhäuser – Overture
Piano Concerto No.2 in B flat, Op.83
Symphony No.5 in E flat, Op.82

François-Frédéric Guy (piano)

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Paavo Berglund

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 31 May, 2003
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

Paavo Berglund’s credentials as a Sibelius conductor need no introduction. It has been a lifetime association. This amazing performance of the Fifth Symphony was freshly re-created … one of the very greatest accounts of it. This was an exceptionally fine concert. The only doubt concerned Berglund himself, his health. Despite purposeful strides on and off the platform, the 74-year-old Finn sat to conduct the three works. He looked slightly restricted by doing so. Yet his baton was easeful in movement and lucid in gesture – and commanding. The music-making was inspired, the LPO wonderfully responsive.

The overture to Wagner’s Tannhäuser can be made to seem a self-indulgent monstrosity. Berglund’s musical discretion gave it cohesive purpose and noble utterance. The brass didn’t dominate. Berglund’s insistence that articulation was always clear and unanimous avoided muddiness of texture. For a whole host of reasons, this was a near-ideal rendition. Berglund has this knack of finding details in scores that are usually overlooked. His is not a Boulez-like precision for what’s written, it is more about constitution and differential – how a chord has an ’extra’ note in it or how a phrase is coloured within by an ’extra’ instrument; how ideas are cross-referenced. Berglund is constantly illuminating in this regard.

François-Frédéric Guy and Berglund are well matched, and are recording this Brahms concerto for Naïve. Given the legion of microphones, maybe the CD will be this performance – if so, it’ll need some patching! I said ’some’. This was a very assured rendition. Guy is a musician first, a virtuoso second. Maybe some will have found his anti-heroic stance disappointing. But he had the scope of the epic first movement and encompassed its moods with integration and no lack of character. The Bachian clarity of his fingerwork and balance between the hands was judiciously within Brahms’s own lineage. Guy was a little coy with dissonance though.

As he has shown in one of the great recorded Brahms symphony cycles (for Ondine), Berglund appreciates the classical side of Brahms’s personality; he also clarifies textures to a degree that make Brahms ’slimmer’ than paintings and photographs suggest. With Berglund, Brahms is a more robust. Very healthy! This was a meeting of minds – Guy and Berglund made a fine team, the LPO a honed intermediary. That said the Scherzo was a little dogged and too contrasted, and the Finale could have ’bounced’ a little more. The slow movement’s outer cello-led sections would have enjoyed a little more poise; Robert Truman’s solos needed more space, but the rapt calm just before the return of ’tempo 1’ was magical indeed. Whatever the basis of Naïve’s forthcoming release, it will be of marked character.

One important point regarding orchestral seating in this concerto. Berglund is no stranger to using antiphonal violins – either in Brahms’s symphonies or in Tchaikovsky. Had he done so here, with the cellos left-centre, then Truman’s solos would have been a duo with the piano, surely what Brahms intended. As it was, as so often, the pianist was looking at the cellist through the gap between piano and lid, and their respective sounds, rather than duetting, were estranged.

A split-second brainstorm on memorable Sibelius 5s in London recalls a younger Berglund (RPO, 15 or so years ago), Leonard Slatkin and the Philharmonia and, at last year’s Proms, David Robertson and his Lyon Orchestra. Berglund and the LPO easily join this pantheon.

Berglund sees the music whole. The galvanic turn into the scherzo extension of the first movement was made inevitable, succeeding expansion inexorable. Equally the growth of cells in the ’Andante mosso, quasi allegretto’ was organic; so many conductors manipulate this, Berglund let it happen. The Finale had drive, majesty, breathtaking pianissimos … then a perfectly timed broadening that brought a heroic (and painful) climb to the summit, the brass writing (superbly played) wonderfully delineated and dynamically charted to triumph, double-note timpani emphasising finality. Throughout the performance Berglund had distilled harmonic undergrowth and polarity with wisdom and total assurance. Detail and (afore-mentioned) differentials all added to vertical and linear satisfaction. His occasional use of six horns was not for volume – oh dear me, no – but for changes of timbre. A real symphony tinged with Finnish lakes and forests; something leviathanistic too. If it wasn’t recorded, it should have been.

A reminder, if one is needed, that Berglund is one of the great conductors of our time. He returns to the LPO on 6 December for more Sibelius, symphonies 6 & 7, and Beethoven, John Lill in Piano Concerto No.4.

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