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S & H Concert Review

Beethoven, Sibelius; John Lill (pf); London Philharmonic Orchestra; Paavo Berglund (con); RFH; 6th December, 2003 (AR)


There was something refreshingly direct and unfussy about John Lillís interpretation of Ludwig van Beethovenís Fourth Piano Concerto. Lill played the Allegro moderato with an athletic agility, complementing the pristine string playing of the London Philharmonic Orchestra; notably superb throughout was some exquisitely phrased and pointed flute playing. Berglundís interpretation tended to be heavily string orientated, giving scant attention to the brass and timpani who were barely audible.

The most moving moments were Lillís solemn playing of the Andante con motto, sounding stark yet serene, perfectly contrasted with the LPOís weighty dark strings and Berglundís tight and measured conducting. Lill switched mood, playing the closing Rondo with a crisp and robust ruggedness, floating his phrases with acrobatic ease. Again the LPO strings had the appropriate tough graininess that this score demands but the trumpets, horns and timpani were too recessed to have any impact. Despite some occasional finger trouble, Lillís played with great fluidity throughout and had complete rapport with the conductor.

The second half was devoted to widely contrasting performances of Jean Sibeliusís Sixth and Seventh Symphonies; the first being conducted rather suavely, the latter tough with rugged textures rare for Berglund.

Now aged seventy, Paavo Berglund released his third Sibelius symphony cycle with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe in the late 1990ís. His performance of the Seventh with the London Philharmonic Orchestra was broader and darker than all previous recordings, clearly demonstrating his undiminished and still evolving artistry.

Today, Sibeliusí symphonies tend to be played with far more streamlined textures, with both Sir Colin Davis and Pavvo Berglund gravitating toward string based readings. The great Sibelius conductors Tauno Hannikainen, Robert Kajanus and Anthony Collins adopted a much more rugged textual approach making the woodwind, brass and timpani far more prominent, visceral and vivacious.

Sibeliusí Sixth Symphony in D minor is the least inspired and least inventive of his seven symphonies, leaning towards the romantic for romanceís sake. All in all, Berglundís reading was far closer to this approach to Sibelius, with swooning seductive strings dominating.

The Allegro molto moderato was measured and weighty with the LPO having a wonderful glossy sheen to them, whilst in the Allegretto moderato the strings had a mesmeric, shimmering quality making the music sound closer to an intimate salon piece. It was only in the Pocco vivace that the trombones had a real mordant presence and the horns and timpani in the closing Allegro molto had an incisive bite. The sedate string-led closing had a melting beauty forming a fitting prelude to the Seventh Symphony to come.

In theory, Berglundís slow-motion reading of Sibeliusí Seventh Symphony in C minor should have collapsed in stasis but the conductor held all the complex transitions and tempi gear shifts together with total precision. Yet very much like the notoriously slow performances of late Klemperer, this late Berglund account may have been excessively slow, heavy and broad but his mammoth conception came off in what was a radiantly glowing performance.

Unlike the performance of the Sixth, the brass were given much more prominence throughout with the horns and trombones shining through with an auratic glow. The authoritative and profound conducting, with the golden playing of the brass and sublime string playing seemed to elevate both the music and audience to the stratosphere. The most moving moments were in the closing passages, with Berglund grunting loudly to encourage painfully strident sounds from the razor sharp strings, soon to be followed by the glowing entrance of the three trombones which gave this performance such a radiant and elevating quality. The closing passages died away with a sense of serene anxiety: a profoundly moving performance which won well deserved applause from a packed FRH.

Alex Russell



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