Classical Review: Hovering on the edge of an unstable world

Berglund and Davis conduct Sibelius et al

Royal Festival and Barbican Halls, London

When Paavo Berglund cued Bartok's aromatic "In Full Bloom" at Thursday's London Philharmonic concert in the RFH, the skies seemed clear and the pollen count low. There was no blurring of contours, no hint of the thick- textured aural blanket that other conductors resort to in post-Impressionist music; but mobility, a mass of detail, stealthy climaxes and a keen sense of musical narrative. One thought perhaps of an uninhabited annexe to Bluebeard's Castle, brooding music rich in pictorial allusions, though the witty "Village Dance" - the second of the Two Pictures - suggested the rough-and-tumble of folk song, especially at the point where Bartok accelerates a hefty dance-motive into the far distance.

Berglund's habitual un-fussiness is a joy to behold, though I would be surprised if the collaboration with pianist Yefim Bronfman in Brahms's Second Piano Concerto marked a harmonious meeting of minds. Bronfman's opening phrases were lovingly moulded, but Berglund responded with a swift, heroically dispatched first tutti. "You want speed?" Bronfman implied; "I'll give you speed..." and off he flew with formidable chordal work, brilliant trills and precious little colour. He'd sit immobile during orchestral passages (always a bad sign), though the slow movement's first solo entry showed some measure of his poetic potential and much of the finale went with a swing.

Bronfman's "smash and grab" Brahms might have seemed less cavalier had the performance of Sibelius's Seventh that preceded it been less inspired. But the century's greatest - and most concise - symphony crowned the evening, coursing forth boldly, without a single jolt, braving all weathers, then bracing itself for a triumphant C-major peroration. Berglund grants Sibelius both granite and intensity, though he attends to the whole without missing as much as a semiquaver's worth of detail.

By comparison, Sir Colin Davis tends to play Sibelius's First and Second Symphonies to the gallery. His is an "unbuttoned" rather than especially insightful approach and Sunday night's "first lap" of Davis's latest LSO Sibelius cycle at the Barbican witnessed some excitable extremes in tone and tempo. The First Symphony opened to Andrew Marriner's hypnotically distended clarinet solo, and the Andante - marked "not too slow" but a mite too leisurely here - benefited from remarkably soft string playing. It was a lusty, Tchaikovskian affair, occasionally scuffed by patches of sticky ensemble (parts of the scherzo were rather vaguely articulated). The performance of No 2 was more relaxed, though Davis made a beeline for the pizzicato basses in the final build-up and the big-shouldered apotheosis brought the house down. A tender-voiced Valse Triste served as an effective encore but, for me, all three readings were too safe and predictable for music that frequently hovers on the edge of an unstable and largely uninhabited world. One sensed that Davis had seen it all before, that he was indulging a memory rather than facing the elements head-on.

LSO Sibelius series continues to 30 November, Barbican Hall, London EC2 (booking: 0171-638 8891)