22 Jan 2013 – Good news – the late Paavo Berglund’s Bournemouth Sibelius Symphonies cycle, reviewed below, has been reissued by EMI. Available at Amazon and other fine stores.
27 Jan 2012 – Sadly, I must update this vintage review of mine with the news that Paavo Berglund passed away at home in Helsinki on 25 January 2012.
During the 1950s, Sibelius himself heard Berglund conduct some of his symphonies as well as the Rakastava Suite. The composer praised Berglund and told him how much he had enjoyed the performances. Besides leading the re-premiere of the Kullervo Symphony in 1972, Berglund’s work on the critical editions of the Seventh Symphony are hugely important. When he conducted the symphony with the Helsinki Philharmonic, he noticed that the musicians were playing from parts that Sibelius had personally corrected. Discrepancies existing in existing printed editions led him to embark on the necessary research to bring to print a new critical edition of the Seventh by Hansen in 1980. His recording of the Seventh Symphony with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra remains, in my opinion, one of the most revelatory experiences of this monumental work. (It should be noted with much regret, however, that this cycle does not appear to be in circulation in the market. I.e. it is not available commercially.)
I’m saddened by the fact that, although I have lived during Mr Berglund’s lifetime, I did not have an opportunity to see him conduct. I would have dearly wished to give him a copy of this 12-year-old review. May the poetry of the Kalevala and the sounds of Finland follow him in restful peace.
Paavo Berglund (1929 – 2012)
Photo by Clive Barda (desingel.de)
Grandmaster of Finnish Sibelian conductors Paavo Berglund (1929 – 2012) 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 was reissued by EMI.
The 1980s cycle with the Helsinki Philharmonic was reissued finally, but what I was really waiting for is this earlier one from the 1970s. 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, this was an insignificant price to pay…
Berglund’s 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 in which he does so is unsurpassed. Simply, his choice as to which lines to emphasize 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.
Yet, Sibelius himself also once said that the notes should “swim in the sauce” – which suggests that the notes should “fuse” in a gravy-like mash. 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. Although we often hear talk about this with reference to Sibelius, the clarity achieved by Berglund and the Bournemouth Symphony is surprisingly effective; 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.
Atmosphere 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?
In 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.
Berglund 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 marvelously 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 music.
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 revolutionized the concept for the 20th century symphony. If anything, Berglund’s interpretations demonstrate 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.
Naturally, 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.
This 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).
Likewise, 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.
But 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 occur. Abrupt? No, simply correct. Excellent stuff!
Berglund 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 here!
The 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.
The 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 breath!
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!
To 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.
The Seventh Symphony
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 all other recorded versions of the Seventh in my collction, and not one exposes this line so clearly as Berglund does. And listen to how effective, how right it is!
This 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 soundscape.
Berglund’s 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.
I 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.
REISSUED January 2013:
The Seven Symphonies, Finlandia, The Swan of Tuonela, Karelia Suite, Tapiola, The Bard, etc.
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra
conducted by PAAVO BERGLUND
EMI Classics 9736002
4 discs budget-price (Amazon)
Old Issue – OUT OF PRINT:
“The Swan of Tuonela” and “Lemminkäinen’s Return” from Four Legends, op.22 – En Saga, op.9
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra
conducted by PAAVO BERGLUND
ROYAL CLASSICS HR703862
4 discs [76:44+71:35+77:09+75:03] budget-price