Magazine article Gramophone

Paavo Berglund: Andrew Mellor Celebrates the Perfectionist Finnish Conductor Who Not Only Breathed Life into Orchestral Culture in His Homeland but Also Introduced Many across the World to Sibelius

Magazine article Gramophone

Paavo Berglund: Andrew Mellor Celebrates the Perfectionist Finnish Conductor Who Not Only Breathed Life into Orchestral Culture in His Homeland but Also Introduced Many across the World to Sibelius

Article excerpt

Five years before his death, Paavo Berglund (1929-2012) conducted for the last time. The ensemble was the Radio France Philharmonic Orchestra, and on the programme, naturally, was Sibelius. Specifically, it was his Fourth Symphony. Berglund talked down his connection to the composer (they met just once) and dismissed claims that Sibelius's music was a personal speciality as an invention of the record industry. But anyone who saw Berglund conduct would be hard-pushed to think of a work that better encapsulates his fearsome, granitic podium manner.

Like that symphony, Berglund was uncompromising and often intimidating. In rehearsal he was as economical with pleasantries as he was haranguing with the baton, frequently staring-down his musicians in a frown, hurling monosyllabic commands over the top of the orchestral melee. He was not in the profession to be liked, but liked he was. Musicians enjoyed his focus on detail and balance, his apparently endless ability to hear new things in old warhorses and his encouragement of sensitivity, particularly from brass sections. Comparing his final Sibelius performances in London (2003-06) with his earliest recorded cycle made more than three decades earlier, it is clear that there was more to Berglund's interpretations than the stern, literal approach for which he is often remembered.

Still, Berglund's reputation for focusing on the score--or his version of it--is well founded. He once travelled to Edinburgh to conduct Sibelius's Rakastava with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, taking with him parts marked up by the composer. It was an early experience conducting the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra in the Seventh Symphony that prompted Berglund to create a thorough analysis of the mistakes in the printed score (in comparison with Sibelius's manuscript) and contribute to the creation of a new edition of the piece. 'Almost everything has to be corrected,' the conductor said of Sibelius in 1995. He wasn't averse to retouching Sibelius's orchestrations to make certain elements speak more clearly.

Berglund was an orchestral musician through and through, a left-handed violinist who once played the Franck Violin Sonata switching between an adapted instrument and a standard one. He first conducted the orchestra in which he then played--the Finnish RSO having been overheard criticising the booked maestro and subsequently challenged to prove he could do better. He went on to transform the ensemble as its chief conductor (as well as establishing an in-house football team), setting standards that some say led to a turning point in Finnish orchestral life.

His perfectionism was hard to take at times, as was his manner of communication in an age of huge transition for the profession. Although close friends talk of his openness and warmth, the composer Aulis Sallinen, sometime manager of the Finnish RSO, admitted that Berglund's reign at the orchestra was 'demanding' for both management and players. But international orchestras responded well to the more experienced Berglund's clarity and straight-talking logic--qualities that were particularly apparent in his Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich and Nielsen.

Berglund's recorded repertoire ranges from Mozart to Joonas Kokkonen via Smetana, Nielsen, Sibelius, Rachmaninov, Shostakovich and more. His concert repertoire included a sizeable chunk of British music, much of it learnt during his time as chief conductor in Bournemouth. …

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