ROYAL FESTIVAL HALL LONDON
ANY ORCHESTRA that tackles Sibelius enters into a musical contract where disciplined thinking is an essential priority: lose the plot for as much as a moment, and the structure suffers. And there can be no passengers among the players.
Sunday night's London Philharmonic presentation of Sibelius's magnificent symphonic fantasy, Pohjola's Daughter - a tale where magic and dejection are set in the Finnish northland - carried absolutely no passengers. Conductor Paavo Berglund inspired the orchestra to perform as a single entity and the extraordinary components of Sibelius's icy narrative were focused without any discernible lapses in concentration. Berglund's priorities include a precisely charted overview, well-drilled execution and due attention to even the smallest instrumental detail. And what a work it is! Some of the scoring dwarfs virtually anything else written at the turn of the century, especially in terms of the brass, lower woodwinds, harp and double- basses. There are startled climaxes, eerie alarms and stretches of musical time where nothing registers except the subtlest shudder.
Pohjola ends quietly (never a comforting sign with Sibelius), but on Sunday night high spirits jumped back with the start of Beethoven's Second (really his first) Piano Concerto. The soloist was the young and prodigiously gifted Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes. His entry was poised and confident, forceful without sounding forced.
He has an ability to "think through" a score, knit its elements into a whole, so that every gesture contributes to the one cogent statement.
For me, however, the evening's musical high point was a reading of Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony where those virtues of honesty, directness and a flat refusal to distort the musical line leant one of the repertory's best-loved war horses a new lease of life. Berglund set to work at a sensibly mobile tempo, then sprung into action for one of the most vivacious accounts of the first movement that I have heard in recent years.
Potential pitfalls are plentiful, and the more indulgent conductors visit them frequently, but Berglund kept up the pace, flew from episode to episode without ceremony and inspired some of the LPO's finest playing this season.
In the slow movement, Richard Bissill's solo horn surpassed all reasonable expectations - a tender statement of one of Tchaikovsky's most indelible melodies, warmed with just a smidgen of expressive rubato. The waltz was very lively, perhaps a little too much so for the tricky instrumental exchanges that sit at its centre, but the finale forged forwards with energy and panache.
Berglund and the LPO recently made an impressive CD of Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony (for the Classic FM Label), so maybe Sunday's performance signals a similar success with the Fifth. I sincerely hope it does.