Paavo Berglund: Conductor celebrated for his interpretations of Sibelius and Shostakovich

Today, a swift survey of the world's major orchestras might convey the impression that every second conductor is a Finn.

But that wasn't always the case, and for several decades Paavo Berglund was one of the most distinguished Finns in the public eye. An association with the music of Sibelius is perhaps inevitable for any Finnish musician, but Berglund was in time to be a pioneer, making the first recording of the early Kullervo symphony, of which he also gave the UK premiere.

Berglund got the music bug from military bands, taking up the violin at 11 and continuing his studies at the Sibelius Academy. The fact that he was left-handed seemed to pose little difficulty: the pianist Ralf Gothóni once performed the Franck Violin Sonata with him and was surprised to find that he "played the first movement with a right-hand violin and the second movement with a left-hand violin. The difference of quality was not notable!"

In 1949 he joined the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra; hearing Wilhelm Furtwängler and the Vienna Philharmonic in Stockholm a year later opened his ears and he set off for the Austrian capital to learn from the richness of musical life there. But his practical entry to the profession came about when his bluff was called back in Helsinki: he expressed his low opinion of one of the FRSO conductors and was challenged to show that he could do better. He had been three years in the ranks when he and some colleagues founded the Helsinki Chamber Orchestra, with the intention of widening the musical diet available in the Finnish capital, and he was made its first conductor.

Berglund's abilities on the podium were now obvious and he was given a post with the Finnish Radio SO, first as assistant conductor and then from 1962-71 as principal conductor. To begin with, Berglund's perfectionism proved, according to Aulis Sallinen, now Finland's senior composer but then the manager of the Orchestra, "most demanding to the orchestra (as well as to the manager), but it is now generally admitted that the positive development of Finnish orchestra culture began then".

It was during this time that Berglund's links with Britain began. He appeared with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in 1965: his standing as a Sibelian made him an obvious choice for a series of concerts marking the centenary of the composer's birth. His UK premiere of Kullervo took place in Bournemouth and London in 1970 – the first time it had been heard outside Finland – and he recorded the work for EMI with his Bournemouth musicians.

His relationship with the Orchestra was sealed in 1972 when he was appointed principal conductor; he remained in the post until 1979, and was often welcomed back thereafter. Roger Preston, the co-principal cello, recalls a 1981 tour of Finland, when they played all the Sibelius symphonies, as "a truly unforgettable experience"; he describes Berglund as "one of the best, if not the best, conductor that I have played for".

He held a number of other chief conductorships,including the Helsinki Philharmonic from 1975-79. From 1987–91 he was principal conductor of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic and from 1993–96 of the Royal Danish Orchestra, with whom he recorded a highly regarded cycle of the Nielsen symphonies. He was a principal guest conductor of the Scottish National Orchestra, and other assignments included appearances in the US and Russia.

Berglund was also a frequent visitor to the studios, with his thorough preparation and unflappable manner. Sibelius featured most often – he recorded the symphonies three times – but he turned to other Finns as well, including Sallinen and Joonas Kokkonen. His way with Shostakovich and other Russian composers drew wide admiration; Bliss, Britten and Walton were among the Britons he recorded, with Beethoven, Brahms, Debussy, Grieg, Haydn, Mozart and two Strausses, Richard and Johann II, among the more mainstream names he brought before the microphones.

It was not just the power and energy of Berglund's readings that earned him praise but his painstaking attention to detail. He attributed his thoroughness to a lesson learned early in his career: "I conducted Sibelius's Seventh Symphony with the Radio Symphony Orchestra in 1956, but it didn't really work out. The next year, I conducted it with the Helsinki Philharmonic, and it went better. I noticed that the Philharmonic played from parts that Sibelius had corrected himself, while the Radio Symphony played from parts with the original printing errors. That is when I understood how important it was to make sure that the parts were up to date".

Ralf Gothóni recalled the effects of Berglund's rigour : he "had a very strong and demanding consciousness of musical laws. It was a great challenge to play with him – and not always easy for the 'freedom-loving' desires of the soloist". He looked severe, too, bent forward in concentration, his left arm holding the baton almost as if warning the orchestra. And in interviews he could be terse to the point of monosyllabism.

But this apparently stern figure had a warmer side, as the cellist Anssi Karttunen remembered: "although he seemed to be always, and I mean always, working, he was a very warm and caring friend of the family, always interested to discuss books, reflexology or philosophy with my wife or have a conversation with our daughter."

And he gave Aulis Sallinen an unlikely cause for worry at the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra: "Paavo Berglund had only one hobby: football. He used to follow on TV British football matches. He also established a football team inside the orchestra. They used to arrange matches even during our tours. The manager (thinking of broken knees and fingers) did not love the idea."

It was Berglund's own poor health that put an end to his career. His legs began to fail, and he was reduced to walking with a frame. He gave his last concert in the Salle Pleyel in Paris in 2007, with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France. Appropriately, it was with a Sibelius symphony – No 4 – that he signed an end to over half a century of conducting.

Paavo Allan Engelbert Berglund, conductor: born Helsinki 14 April 1929; honorary OBE 1977; married 1958 Kirsti Kivekäs (one son, two daughters); died Helsinki 25 January 2012.

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