Don Juan, Op.20
Violin Concerto No.2
Symphony No.4 in F minor, Op.36
Christian Tetzlaff (violin)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: 19 February, 2005
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London
For his second concert with the London Philharmonic this week, Paavo Berglund was more ‘in the swim’. Indeed this long and demanding concert consisted of performances that were compelling and satisfying, sometimes of an indefinable greatness, and a testimony to Berglund’s musical and technical skills, and his stoicism, and which left a definite feel-good factor afterwards.
It’s easy to drive through Strauss’s Don Juan as an orchestral showpiece. Give it a little more time than the ‘norm’, though, invest a sense of narrative, keep the structure on course through a myriad of expressive asides (not least rarely heard details in the strings) and strive for the ultimate climax, and you have ‘familiar’ music rejuvenated. This occasionally fallible performance needed to be heard rather than read about. Unhurried but symphonically taut, there was an invigorating freshness to this oft-played work. Ian Hardwick provided a tender oboe solo, and the LPO’s corporate response demonstrated that its musicians were on their mettle. If the power of a single downbeat can sustain an entire piece, then Berglund’s single, decisive gesture to launch this difficult-to-start work galvanised an account both rigorous and spontaneous, and lucidly balanced.
There’s a finite calculation to most of Bartók’s music, and not least his Second Violin Concerto. With Berglund’s (left-hand) conducting arm now more commanding and his gesticulation more compelling (than three nights ago), although he had no visual contact with Christian Tetzlaff, one was aware that he was listening acutely and that his baton was transferring power to the orchestra. This was something of a ‘contrast of equals’. Tetzlaff is a master of this concerto and gave an unostentatious and deeply sympathetic account, one that was, at times, too emphatic, even disruptive, yet there was an edge and a visceral attack that underlined this music, first and foremost, is a response to its time (1937/38) and to circumstance.
Berglund secured beautifully blended, subtly shaded orchestral playing, in which fortissimos made more of an impression for being few and structured. In the second movement there was a nimbleness of execution from all concerned that paid tribute to Bartók’s ingenious use of variation form, and Tetzlaff brought eloquence to Bartók’s simple if heartfelt lyricism. As he does on his 1990 Virgin Classics recording (with, as it happens, the LPO, and Michael Gielen), Tetzlaff opted for Bartók’s original final bars, in which the soloist does not play. Eric Mason’s programme note reported that Bartók revised the coda to incorporate first-soloist Zoltán Székely’s request to be kept in view. This implied that the revision was being played. In fact, Tetzlaff stopped playing and the orchestra had the final word with some striking invention. Tetzlaff had the last laugh, though, with a Bach encore played as if the ink was still wet.
In Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony the opening fanfares were more imposing than fateful (although there was more sting when this motto returns in the finale) and Berglund’s equilibrium of structure and emotion paid rich dividends, the music really taking wing in the first-movement development. (Tchaikovsky’s music is the greater when it is not bludgeoned, saturated and mauled around.) Both middle movements were wonderfully done. The ‘Canzone’ (led by another fine solo from Hardwick) seemed, initially, a simple air; but how subtly, and flexibly, Berglund turned this music onto its dark side. This was rapt, almost secretive music-making; and the range of dynamics invested into the pizzicato third movement was equally special. The finale, propulsive but without insistence, ended joyfully, the (deftly played) horn-led introduction to the coda being immediately sparkling (some conductors creep up on it). Terrific, then!
Berglund’s biography (as published in the LPO’s programme) needs an update. His LPO recording of Tchaikovsky 4 and the 1812 Overture may well be his “latest recording”, but it was made in February 1998! If still available it’s well worth seeking out (Classic FM/BMG 75605 570402) – a reading too good to be saddled with the label’s awful presentation, not least the “Mood Guide”.
With the Royal Festival Hall’s 18-month closure not far away, one wonders if the LPO has invited Berglund into its forthcoming plans (if he is to complete his LPO Sibelius cycle then symphonies 1, 3 and 4 remain to be performed … and Kullervo). Hopefully London will see him again; for the moment Berglund and the LPO are off to tour Slovenia, Switzerland and Germany – with this programme and Sibelius’s Second Symphony.