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Beethoven, Elgar, Sibelius: Pieter Wispelwey (cello), London Philharmonic Orchestra, Paavo Berglund, Royal Festival Hall, 16 February 2005 (TJH)

Few conductors are as intimately linked in the mind with a single composer as Paavo Berglund is with Jean Sibelius. Berglund has performed the latter’s symphonies and tone poems with countless orchestras around the world and recorded the complete symphonic cycle no less than three times. It came as no surprise then that his performance of the D-major Second Symphony with the London Philharmonic on Wednesday was as majestic and skilfully-crafted an interpretation as you are likely to find. Such hyper-specialisation can come at a price though, and as marvellous as his Sibelius was, it did not excuse the colourless, wilfully indifferent performances of Beethoven and Elgar that preceded it.

Like the composer with whom he is so closely associated, Berglund serves nothing but “pure, cold water”; but if in the Sibelius he dispensed a crisp, refreshing elixir, he managed in the first half only to douse any fire the music might once have had. Berglund is 75 now and the weight of years really showed as he shuffled onto the platform to begin a flaccid, uninteresting account of Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 3. He made scant gestures throughout, never lifting his baton above shoulder height, and the LPO’s playing was consequently unenergized, if respectful. Their tone was beautiful, with some lovely, vibrato-lite playing from the strings in particular, but the performance was too tepid and detached to make any real impact.

Elgar’s Cello Concerto was equally abstracted, any last dying embers of Romanticism thoroughly extinguished by Berglund’s stubbornly unlovable conducting. The cellist was the talented Dutchman Pieter Wispelwey, and it was an important evening for him, marking as it did the beginning of a five-year partnership with the LPO as guest soloist. He gave a clear-eyed, unfussy reading of the solo part, eliciting a refined, transparent sound from his Guadagnini cello in the first movement and turning the subsequent Allegro molto into a sprightly Rococo romp. In fact, there was a classical lucidity to much of the performance – the LPO sounding at times like a tight little chamber ensemble – and this at least made a welcome alternative to the heavy, maudlin sentimentality so often favoured in Elgar. But again Berglund seemed singularly uninterested, letting the central Adagio pass by distractedly and allowing the finale to dissolve into a catalogue of vague shrugs. Nowhere did he attempt to give shape to individual details, opting for blandness over character at every opportunity. Nor did he pay much attention to Wispelwey – who, to his credit, was musician enough to not let his own clear enthusiasm upstage Berglund’s complete lack thereof, opting instead to conduct the bulk of his musical dialogue with the orchestra’s leader, Boris Garlitsky.

Of course, no-one comes to hear Berglund conduct Elgar or Beethoven, and those who didn’t give up and leave during the interval were treated to a masterly account of Sibelius’ Second that almost made up for the drab and dreary first half. Berglund seemed remarkably invigorated when he took to the podium again, and from the moment the strings started playing their striking opening figure it was clear this was an entirely different calibre of performance. Suddenly every detail counted, every phrase was sculpted with the greatest of care, every note was dripping with character and poise. Tellingly, the frequency – not to mention the quality – of Berglund’s gestures was greatly increased, and this extra level of communication inspired some wonderful playing from the LPO. Textures were vividly realised, the winds in particular contributing some authentically Scandinavian sounds, with brass interjecting grandly and faultlessly. After a nigh-on perfect first movement, Berglund gave a dramatic and well-paced account of the Andante, which sounded very much the tone poem it began life as. Though rather on the quick side, he took the “ma rubato” tempo indication literally and his conducting here had the sort of well-controlled rhythmic flexibility that would doubtless have been effective in the earlier Elgar had Berglund been so inclined.

If one had to fault Berglund at all in this work though, it would only be in his handling of the third movement, which was just a little scrappy in places and failed to build up quite the right level of excitement to really launch the big, anthemic tune which opens the finale. The strings dug in when that tune reappeared towards the end, to stirring effect, but Berglund saved the real emotional climax for the ‘crescendo theme’ that followed: swirling strings accompanying a foreboding, ever-building set of repetitions that finally erupted in a great shout of D major. The Brucknerian chorale with which the symphony ended was even more magnificent, Berglund adopting a slow, grand tempo that inspired just the right level of awe to earn him a justifiably enthusiastic response from the audience.

He looked ten years younger as he soaked up that applause and it was hard to believe this was the same old man who had delivered such eminently forgettable music just an hour ago. Perhaps there was something in the water after all.

Tristan Jakob-Hoff



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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)