LPO/Berglund/Lill, Royal Festival Hall, London
Wednesday 31 December 2003
Amazing how the high-voltage input of great music can counter physical frailty. Saturday night at the Royal Festival Hall saw a plainly fragile Paavo Berglund taking his time to reach his conducting chair then, suddenly rejuvenated, rifle hurriedly through the pages of Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto. Having the piano placed front-centre-stage meant that Berglund's attentions were restricted mainly to the London Philharmonic woodwinds who, as it happened, excelled. The pianist, John Lill, strode on for a wholesome, no-holds-barred performance, occasionally fallible but sensitive and with a fat, forceful tone.
Berglund's Sibelius brooks no compromise, so when the last two symphonies are segued as a sequence and the conductor shouts in the heat of the moment the effect is riveting. The ethereal Sixth emerged as bigger, more open than usual. The Seventh's initial ascent seemed impatient for action, though the opening paragraphs breathed with imposing majesty. And Berglund's calming of the string surges towards the centre of the piece, just before the trombones broke through, was effective. The strength of his performance, its power and integrity, was humbling. You sensed both the hazards of the journey and the inevitability of that hard-won C major destination.
The Fifth Symphony is a very different beast, and Wednesday's Barbican performance by the London Symphony Orchestra under Sir Colin Davis concentrated more on triumph than mystery. The first movement opened with panoramic warmth then accelerated by stages towards an exhilarating coda, the timps ripping through like heavy artillery. The concert's second half opened with Suzanne Bertish declaiming George Meredith's poem The Lark Ascending. Anyone listening who didn't already know the connection would have been hard pressed to make one between Meredith's poetic philosophising and Vaughan Williams's serene evocation of nature. Hilary Hahn's lark displayed a rare plumage with a singing voice to match, her intonation utterly faultless, her vibrant tone more than enough to put rival beaks out of joint. Hahn's closing envoi was breathtaking, though I imagine some would have favoured a more wistful touch, perhaps a lone representative from the orchestral flock.
Radu Lupu gave an acutely stylised account of Schumann's Piano Concerto, a supreme colourist tending to inner voices like a gardener foraging for the rarest plants, so much so that you occasionally forgot where the top line was going. Though superficially laid back, Lupu's subtle Schumann breathed an air of expressive intensity. The intermezzo was almost too taciturn, the finale brilliant and delicate.
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