LPO Berglund Wispelwey

Overture – Leonore No.3, Op.72a
Cello Concerto in E minor, Op.85
Symphony No.2 in D, Op.43

Pieter Wispelwey (cello)

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Paavo Berglund

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 16 February, 2005
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

A packed-house for this most standard of programmes. However, this turned out to be a rather sad event. Paavo Berglund is undoubtedly a great conductor, one whose Bournemouth concerts in the 1970s I have many unforgettable memories. Even as recently as December 2003, he and the LPO gave quite superlative performances of Sibelius’s 6th and 7th symphonies, fortunately recorded for the LPO’s own label. This concert, however, revealed a visibly frail Berglund; he made his way with some difficulty to the podium with the aid of a walking stick and conducted seated throughout.

Conducting in this way is no bar to great music-making but for much of the programme Berglund seemed at one-remove from the orchestra; of course, he has never been one to dot Is and cross Ts, preferring to give minimal cues and concentrate on ebb and flow, on the music’s melos, but on this occasion the orchestra received fairly minimal help and ensemble frequently faltered. All praise therefore to the leader, Boris Garlitsky, and his co-principals who held things together – just – at certain key moments.

Least affected was the Beethoven, a little penny-plain perhaps but with some beautiful string pianissimos in the introduction, a fine forward thrust in the central allegro – good off-stage trumpet solo – and an exciting coda which generated plenty of heft when the floodgates finally opened. The LPO’s string section, once its weakest feature, has improved out of all recognition, and now plays with real warmth and balance.

Less happy was the Elgar. The days when his music was supposedly an English preserve have long-since passed; nonetheless the combination of this particular work and the flamboyant Dutch cellist, Pieter Wispelwey seemed a mismatch. A big player both physically and in the sound produced, Wispelwey constantly seemed to be trying to impose his personality on this most personal and private of cello concertos. It is said that politicians have a problem when they (rather than their policies) become the story. Much the same was true of this performance. Every passing phrase was seized on and subjected to minute scrutiny, the line constantly disrupted, phrases distended. All rather tiring! Berglund, normally a canny accompanist but hampered in his physical movements, appeared disengaged, and though there were some beautiful things in the accompaniment, there were also some hiatuses.

The Sibelius symphony started promisingly. However secure the broad outline of the interpretation, fallibility of execution constantly prevented real enjoyment: balances frequently went awry and there was some indifferent wind playing. Individual details gave pleasure, for example the flexibility with which the double bass and cello pizzicatos opened the slow movement and the sensitive solo trumpet later in the same movement. For the most part though it was a messy performance, the build-up to the eruption into the finale a particular case in point. Occasionally shafts of illumination lit up the night sky; for example, Berglund has always had a very special understanding of the importance of the timpani parts in clinching Sibelius’s climaxes, as in the final moments of the symphony’s peroration, but for much of the time one felt oneself present at the wreck of a once-great interpretation. As a huge Berglund fan it gives me no pleasure to write this.

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