The name Paavo Berglund has become synonymous with
the music of Jean Sibelius and he has had a long association with the
Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra and the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra
in his native Finland.
With such a long experience and familiarity with Sibelius’
works, one would have expected the Sibelius Fifth Symphony to be the
highlight of the evening, but this did not prove to be the case. Instead,
this was provided by Brahms’ Piano Concerto No.2, and the inspired playing
of François-Frédéric Guy.
The concert opened with a highly polished, if rather
soulless, account of Richard Wagner’s Overture, Tannhauser. Berglund
seemed to have reached the end of the overture as soon as he started:
the opening passages were far too loud and strident, with the conductor
building up the tension far too early – a sort of musical ejaculatio
praecox - so that when we did get to the closing passages it was
an anticlimax, with the trombones in particular sounding far too suppressed.
A saving grace of this back-to-front performance was the superbly strident
playing of the horns, and the strings had a shimmering sheen, displaying
great rhythmic vitality.
Although Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto opened with a sadly sour-sounding
horn solo, pianist François-Frédéric Guy offered
us a wonderful blend of agile and assertive playing of the first movement.
Guy displayed great virtuosity and dynamic range, floating his phrases
with great eloquence and economy. Often this movement can sound heavy,
but with Guy the drama came through due to his intellectual reserve.
This movement was well paced by Berglund who coaxed the strings to play
with great warmth and depth of feeling, but unfortunately it was marred
by some very harsh horn intonation throughout.
In the Allegro appassionato Guy played with
an even deeper intensity, taking on darker colours and a greater sense
of urgency. Again Berglund got some very expressive playing from the
violins but gave little, if any, attention to the cello’s and double
basses, who seemed barely audible and rather left to fend for themselves.
Guy played the Andante with a stark delicacy
and ghostly detachment which was sadly often sabotaged by the solo cello,
which seemed rather coarse. With the closing Allegro grazioso Guy
switched to an extraordinarily subtle style of playing: sedate, reserved,
light and buoyant. Indeed, so delicate was his playing that it was very
often swamped by the LPO who played with great gusto. This was nevertheless
one of the most insightful and sensitive readings I have heard of this
After this revelatory performance of the Brahms Second
Piano Concerto, Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony, contrary to expectation,
proved to be somewhat of a disappointment, despite Berglund’s affinity
with the composer.
The opening Temp molto moderato was far too
protracted, with the conductor completely losing the forward thrusting
momentum and urgency this movement requires: one felt that the performance
was in imminent danger of grinding to a halt. Despite Berglund’s mannered
reading, he drew some shimmering, icy playing from the strings and impressive
staccato blasts from the horns. The Andante mosso, quasi allegretto
was perfectly paced, with Berglund making the music sound suitably
menacing and brooding; again the horns took on an aptly rugged and stark
quality; this was the most successfully rendered movement of an unevenly