Grandmaster of Finnish Sibelian conductors Paavo Berglund (b.1929)
is comparatively not well-known among collectors of Sibelius records.
And yet, he is not only instrumental in the editions to the scores,
but has unique insights into the music which no other conductor
has demonstrated, in all my listening experience for these works.
Berglund's recordings with the Bournemouth Symphony, with whom he
is Conductor Emeritus, have been unavailable for so long that they
have virtually reached mythical status. Their legendary pioneering
account of Kullervo remains unavailable
anywhere, thanks to EMI's mysterious policies. (Actually, it's been
reissued, and the Inkpot
1980s cycle with the Helsinki Philharmonic was reissued finally,
but what I was really waiting for is this earlier one. Oddly, EMI
has licensed the recording to Royal Classics, a budget line - hence
super-cheap price, great recordings but no notes whatsoever. But
as I found out, the last was an insignificant price to pay...
PASSES THE GRAVY TEST
SUNDAY TIMES August 15, 1998
Pettitt talks to the Finnish conductor, Paavo Berglund, about
his nation's greatest composer (Excerpt)
His favourite orchestra of all time is one he only ever heard
in recordings: the NBC under Toscanini. Toscanini is one of
his conducting idols; another is Furtwängler. What, I wonder,
was [Berglund's] position on the question of Toscanini's accuracy
versus Furtwängler's atmosphere? "I think they together [sic].
And you can have different accuracies. Sibelius's music is
often ruined because it's too strictly accurate. I think maybe
musicians like to play like this" – he makes a series of downward
vertical gestures – "but it's good to do it like this" – his
hands, one above the other, oscillate gently in and out of
vertical alignment. "Accuracy against atmosphere: it's not
that simple. The early Sibelius conductor Georg Schneevoigt
once complained that he couldn't get the details out of Sibelius's
scores. Sibelius said that he should simply swim in the gravy."
way of bringing out details in the score is unique to him, a result
not only of his understanding of the Sibelian idiom, but his intricate
familiarity with the music. To him, everything the composer wrote
should be audible - lines and notes must never be wasted. As a result,
Berglund seeks transparency and translucency in Sibelius' music
- he is not the only conductor who does this, but the compelling
way he does it is unsurpassed. Simply, his choice as to which lines
to emphasise at which point is breathtakingly appropriate. The composer
himself would be able to corroborate this idea, for his philosophy
of concentrated organic growth together with his concision of expression
demands that every note be utilised meaningfully. Every note you
write should mean something.
Sibelius himself also once said that the notes should "swim in the
sauce" - which suggests that the notes should "fuse" in a mesh or
conglomerate. This then, is the dilemma a performer of Sibelius'
music faces: how to make each note meaningful in its place, while
ensuring the whole exists in organic cohesion, fusing all to become
a great living singularity.
One of the first things a listener familiar with the symphonies
will notice in this set is the prominence of the lines, particularly
of the strings. This clarity is, although we often hear talk about
it with reference to Sibelius, surprisingly effective in the performances
here; there is a sort of transparent "streaking" stringwork which
is highly "classical" in quality. Perhaps irritating to some, which
I thought it would to me, but somehow - it works. In the first movements
of the First and Second, even the Sixth,
Symphonies, you can hear this in the many sequences of short phrases,
all sculpted with rippling clarity, yet retaining a palpable sense
of cohesion and development. Alternatively, in this recording of
the Fifth, listen to the ending of the
first movement with its skittering stringwork and trumpet march-like
theme above the pulsing timpani and horns - what an added excitement
the clarity adds!
The first two symphonies are examples of Sibelius' more "Romantic"
side; both are played with tremendous energy, but the hand of an
intelligent musician is clearly here. Both are distinguished by
the translucency of the orchestral sound. In the nocturnal darkness
of No.2's Andante, witness how the bassoon solo plays its
notes to the full, extending the mildly eerie atmosphere. Even the
violent eruptions and dramatic contrasts of the Andante has
rarely sounded so naturally sculpted and meaningful as here. Berglund
does the same to the opening tritone theme of the Fourth - modern
as the work sounds, he makes it sound even more... "distracting"
and so deliberately knowing. Likewise the ghostly "By the Sea" from
Pelléas et Mélisande: there is simply such a sense of cerebral
grace and artfulness to the interpretations, which directly reflects
on the shaping of the music by the conductor.
is superbly evoked in these performances. Some of the most human
music, like the sad song of "Mélisande" from the Pelléas
Suite, the breezy sighs of the slow movements of the First,
the compassionate optimism of the Fifth ... and the Andante
of the Third, one of the most beautiful: listen to the melting wash
of the strings over the winds, that dusky melancholia - pure Sibelius
in the hands of this Vainamoinen of Sibelian conductors. Need I
even mention the fragile beauty of that so humane, so infinitely
sad, so innocently serene Sixth?
the finales of No.1, No.3 or the ending sequence of En Saga,
every line is carved from the orchestra in searing musical detail.
I really mean this - the sequences of notes are very clear
and... how should I put it? - "equal"; but not to the point of rigidity.
It is precisely this sense of architectural uniformity and detailed
translucency combined with an unfaltering sense of natural flow
that distinguishes this excellent cycle. If you ever have any reason
to own a second (or more) cycle of these symphonies, buy this one.
obviously admires how deliberately effective the string writing
is, paying careful attention and great patience to Sibelius' string
hallmarks. Passages of exposed string ostinato with wind fluttering
and staccatoing above, or winds above quietly throbbing timpani
are painted with startlingly evocative atmosphere. The sylvan daylight
of the Sixth is marvellously portrayed, everything from the glowing
strings to the spritely woodwind and the glittering cascades of
harp. The role of the basses, or the composer's highly original
writing for timpani, are always given their right space, whether
as hymning pedals or rumbling interjections - with meaning in the
But I do know that some critics are put off by this attention to
detail, in response to the Chamber Orchestra of Europe cycle (on
Finlandia, which I haven't heard). I must admit sometimes the deliberateness
does start to get on one's nerves, especially in this performance
of No.4 - notes stretched, eerily, stubbornly, to the full, staccato
articulated like clockwork. I was rather suspicious too from the
beginning, but ultimately in most cases, I heard how effective it
is on this cycle. Mainly, I find that the remarks about over-carefulness
are faults only with lesser conductors. When you think about what
Sibelius' music seems to strive for (concision, organic growth,
etc.), this style is at least logical. With a conductor of Berglund's
wisdom and experience, the results are more than effective - they
are extremely compelling.
After all, Sibelius greatly respected the classical (form-based)
principle, and himself revolutionised the concept for the 20th century
symphony. If anything, Berglund's interpretations demonstate this.
In the Allegro molto vivace (No.4), the music certainly comes
across as both classical in a modern setting, so articulate, yet
somehow disconcerting - listen to how it ends so abruptly. It makes
me wonder how Sibelius would have conducted it, especially on that
famous premiere when the audience was silent at the end.
in the most (widely-acknowledged as) "Neo-classical" of the seven
symphonies, the Third, much is to be gained. Albeit, the stubborn
chugging of the string parts becomes almost relentlessly insistent
(a bit too much too in the second movement of the Sixth), balanced
in part by the confident players and the winds supporting the overall
orchestral picture. Listen for the section at 7'14" (the Arabian-like
theme) - the strings themselves intoning the melody, the chirping
woodwinds in the background and below that the pedal of brass so
nicely held. Wonderful.
is not to say it's all sinewy, fibrous and/or ornamented á là
"Baroque", because ultimately, Berglund reveals this level of detail
only to show how it can all be fused into one symphonic being. Perhaps
I can call this dynamic fusion, which occurs in many ways: eg. via
careful use of crescendo and diminuendo, which itself contributes
to the melding of lines whereby different layers of timbre and sound
slip under and above each other seamlessly. Throughout this cycle,
listen to how the instrumental timbres (eg. flute vibrato, soft
horns underneath) meld together so beautifully as one, yet the orchestra
is so transparently detailed. But again, the timbres ultimately
fuse to create a unified colour not often achieved. The strings,
so chamber-like in the Fourth, elsewhere the brass and strings meld
together in legato; and even the rare use of percussion (for Sibelius)
in the tone poems (the Bournemouth's triangle is fabulous!) sound
so refined and evocative, not too "crashing". (You see, I suspect
Sibelius does not use too much of cymbals and triangles because
they are not "nature" sounds).
Berglund does not overdo the contrast within movements; his sense
of drama in this music is highly expressive and organic, moving
with genuinely natural flow, never jarring. In the Second Symphony,
Berglund moulds the whole as one single flowing heroic tale. Thus,
its huge final coda, or even that of the Fifth - easily overblown
and made somewhat "vulgar" - are played with grand optimism, and
clarity of both sound and purpose. I must cite not just the superbly
controlled brass, but the noble sound of the Bournemouth timpani.
hardly anywhere else is this sense of dramatic flow more convincing
than in the finale of the Third Symphony. This movement is often
considered abrupt, a result of the concise treatment of the material,
comprising a fused scherzo and finale. I myself cannot deny that
in most performances, it does indeed sound oddly clipped, as if
it ends too early. No.3's finale, unlike that of No.2's, seems to
only state itself once, then immediately ends. But here, in Berglund's
superb rendition, the Moderato moves with anticipation and
purpose towards the Allegro - the transition is seamless
and utterly natural, as the noble final theme appears on lower strings
and builds towards the climax. Even when I try, I cannot feel at
which point the music steps up; rather, it is an overwhelming sense
of gradual flow which comes through. The mighty strings propelling
their ostinato adds a tremendous momentum to the swelling volume
of brass, and when they reach that one single climactic utterance
- the ending is simply the most natural thing to do. Abrupt? No,
simply correct. Excellent stuff!
is, thus, a master of pacing, seamlessly shifting tempo between
and within passages, phrases and movements - the gradual sense of
slowing down, then the softening, or a quiet and precise stop (No.6,
first movement), even the fade of a final string pizzicato chord
(No.1) - each movement's ending has in its mind the beginning of
the next. The handling of the magnificent transition from the Vivacissimo
to the Finale of the Second Symphony is again absolutely
stunningly natural. The string tone and the waves of brass fuse
with marvellous kinship.
Speaking of tone, the Bournemouth brass are tremendous, generating
Celibidache-like oceans of sounds.
The blare of horns in the opening of the First
Symphony is like the blast of Scandinavian longhorns; but the
Fifth opens with such soft glowing dawn tones. Every appearance
of the full brass is admirably relished - no opportunity is wasted
to exploit the epic voice of their parts when required - gosh, just
listen to their first heroic appearance in the Third Symphony, or
in their mythic splendour in En Saga and Lemminkäinen's
Return. If you think Sibelius is all soft birdsong woodwind,
wait till you hear the vividly feral sounds evoked in En Saga
Fifth Symphony opens with a rounded and beautifully evocative rendition
of the wind solos. The acoustic of the Guildhall, Southampton catches
just a touch of reverberation to give the music that sense of expansive
distance, so important to this great symphonic tribute to nature.
Needless to say, the misterioso section of the first and
last movements are handled with great atmosphere. Indeed, this performance
of the Fifth is so... the word that springs to mind is "healthy"
- the entire first movement glows with shining life and exuberant
vitality, exactly what this work exemplifies in spirit. The transparency
of the orchestral soundscape seems to showcase every single living,
breathing vessel of the work.
cycle was recorded in the early 1970s, and although occasionally
there is a hint of hiss, the overall sound is simply magnificent
in body and of course, if you haven't got the hint yet, transparently
detailed. I have a feeling Berglund must have had a hand in it,
for the different degrees of sonic fusion between the instruments
seem to vary according to his musical needs. Listen to how the horns
in the opening (first movement) of the Fifth
stay in the distance so atmospherically, compared to how they come
to fore in the "Swan Hymn" of the finale, and that creating a majestic
field of brassy sky upon which the woodwinds soar over, lifted aloft
by the shining sunlight of the strings. I have not yet caught my
The set ends with En Saga, and before that, Lemminkäinen's
Return, the last of the Four Legends, op.22. With a thunderous
bang on timpani, the Bournemouth Symphony launch into a supersonic,
gigantic reading of the work. As Lemminkäinen's journey gathers
tempo, the speed that the orchestra drives the music is jaw-dropping.
Just listen to the blazing velocity of the hurtling strings from
about 3'40", as the winds intone garishly barbaric songs above,
punctuated by smiting blows of brass. And with all that detail!
Berglund shakes every tone colour from the orchestra in ear-piercingly
savage atmosphere, white-hot with mythic power. In 30 seconds I
can hear every fleeting flake of snow, every explosion of hoof on
ground, every icy breath of wind, every razor leaf of tree streaking
past Lemminkäinen as he rides his way home. All the more satisfying
the outpouring sense of triumph as the work ends in the major!
those of you who swear by Beecham's famous 1937 RPO recording on
EMI: Berglund may be about 20 seconds slower, but believe me this
Bournemouth version is infinitely better. Not only does the modern
sound help, but the way Berglund shapes, colours and binds the musical
material makes this Return vastly more 'Finno-mythical' than
the comparatively empty virtuosity of the RPO.
With great anticipation I listened to this recording of the Seventh.
My eyes were already wide-open after three minutes. Never have I
heard the Seventh as here - lines glide out of the orchestra where
I've never noticed before. As the great first climax manifests,
it is not so much the majestic trombone solo that catches my attention,
but instead it is the divinely soaring chord in G-E in the violins,
above a gently rolling C-pedal in the double basses that had me
humbled to tears of bliss. I have listened to my other versions
of the Seventh, and not one exposes this line so clearly as Berglund
does. And listen to how effective, how right it is!
Bournemouth version of the Seventh Symphony's first climax is the
most magical, most human, most nature-embracing I have ever heard.
The violins dip subtly in volume, pause with infinite tranquility,
then rise purposefully, calmly into the chord, bringing with its
heavenly breeze the trombone solo riding underneath. The music breathes!
String trills flutter like the wind as the great cumulus of brass
intone their hymns - and yet, nothing is blurred in this magnificent
conducting is simply amazing - you can hear and FEEL him shaping
the music - everything is so alive. Yes, occasionally I think
the playing is a bit "raw" - but it comes across directly as an
expression of the life-giving energy of this music. The orchestra
never comes across as static, instead its strength and flow creates
a sensation of... oceans of undulating earth. Can you imagine a
serene hymn of thunder and rolling clouds? Because that is exactly
how the timpani roll at the final C-chord is like - all at once,
light and darkness in fusion, a cosmic chorale where everything
reaches universal equilibrium at total force, shaking with voluminous
yet unified power, brazen brass upon tremoring basses, booming timpani,
humming harmonies of winds, fields upon fields of silvery strings;
the orchestral lines conjoin, swell and surge forward with enormous
volume of purpose, fusing to reach the nirvana of C major.
have never lost my belief in Sibelius' Seventh Symphony - here,
I believe again. This is my top recommendation of the Seventh,
and of the full cycle, bar none: Paavo Berglund's Sibelius
- and of course the great composer himself - reminds me again why
it is wonderful to be alive.
I B E L I U S
to life: that life
which I so love,
now and always,
INKPOT SIBELIUS NUTCASE still
has difficulty typing bounremnoth, Bournemt, Bournemtn, bournemt,
Bouten, Bourenmont, Bourentme, Bourenme, Bourentment, Bournemouth
respond to this article, please post your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org
3.8.1999 © ISN
From: Tom Watrous (email@example.com / Saturday, February 10, 2001 at 10:43:08)
Absolutely RIGHT ON with the comments of the Seventh Symphony with Berglund/Bournemouth. I too have never heard a superior version, and with that I add the original LP companions, Tapiola and Oceanides; the last two, unfortunately, at present unavailable...
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