LPO / Paavo Berglund, Royal Festival Hall, London
Finnish mastery sets the right pace
Tuesday 03 June 2003
Once a fixture on the British scene, the Finnish conductor Paavo Berglund has had a lower profile over the last couple of decades. His music-making has the same character that it had when he was in charge of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra - fine balance, no fuss - compounded now by a rich-toned grandeur and a combination of spaciousness and surprising immediacy. The music can turn from calm and steady to fast and vivid so suddenly that it shocks.
Wagner's Tannhäuser Overture, which opened his visiting programme with the London Philharmonic, was a master class in the limits of simple solutions. The same pulse covered everything, slow introduction and central frenzy alike. The introduction's breadth was created by crescendo and phrasing alone, apart from one tiny slowing. But that is where simplicity ended and artistry began. The pulse itself felt like the only option. There was sufficient give and take to keep the music fluent and lyrical - any more would have turned it triumph-alist. Whirling string accompaniments had enough artic- ulation for clarity but not so much that they lost their continuity. Opera doesn't feature in Berglund's programme biography, but he certainly knows what Wagner needs.
The same with Sibelius. Finnish guests are always asked to conduct their compatriot. It's a kind of typecasting that gives the classical music world a bad name - there's no reason why they should have any special insight denied to, say, Colin Davis, and most of them don't. With Berglund, you hope the programmer's choice is personal rather than national. Over the years - he has recorded Sibelius's symphonies three times - he has come to give the music a unique mix of ruthless concentration and tragic power.
It's down to focusing on the essentials and dealing with them boldly. No 5 features a huge, gradual change from slow to extremely fast; an interlude, and then a finale that reverses the process. It's an original and risky way to make a symphony, and conductors can easily obstruct it with exaggerated slowings and extra accelerations. Berglund seems to know that the extremes are built-in and goes straight for them, letting pace have its way as he patiently amasses the weight of sound at the end of the first movement, holding the finale's recovery of poise firm and piling on the layers of brass with precision.
In Brahms's Piano Concerto No 2, the soloist François-Frédéric Guy was a like-minded collaborator in making the music lyrical, weighty and dynamic. He produced expressive force from shapely phrasing rather than pushing the pace around, drew rich sonorities from the keyboard's left-hand area and animated them with well-judged accents. He had the stamina to keep up momentum through the notorious wrist-breaking crescendos. All this prowess, and in the later movements delicacy too, was deployed within an unswerving vision of the work's dimensions. Brahms in one basic tempo can be dull, but here he was driven, and that made all the difference.
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