Just heard that Paavo Berglund, Finnish conductor renowned for his Sibelius interpretations, died yesterday at the age of 82. The one article with any details is in Finnish; one can at least discern that he died of pneumonia.
Berglund’s interpretations were profoundly unsentimental, straightforward, and severe. In rehearsal he was said to be uncompromising in his efforts to get the sound he wanted (see below for videos of him rehearsing and conducting). This interviewer noted, “It is easy to discuss details of the score with Berglund. On the other hand, any highfalutin discussion on aesthetics or the spirit of Sibelius’ music is totally impossible.” Berglund said, “I don’t know anything about a Spirit of Sibelius,” focusing instead on conducting “the whole score,” and all of its details. He approved of Karajan’s Sibelius, but said, “his old recordings are too soft for my taste. I prefer hardness and vitality.” And so he did, in all the repertoire he conducted, with often revelatory results.
I only heard him live once, conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony in 2005.
He walked very slowly to the podium, with a cane and an assistant to help. Once there, his gestures were minimal, and directed entirely toward the orchestra; nothing for the audience to watch. Perhaps the performance didn’t have the furious energy of classic Russian recordings by Mravinsky and Kondrashin, but it had other virtues: an astringent purity of timbre coupled with enormous dynamic range, and forward propulsion even at fairly measured tempi. The result seemed to have been hewn out of granite. (Richard Dyer reviewed the concert for the Boston Globe here; Berglund recorded the work with the Russian National Orchestra for Pentatone, and the recording squares with what I heard that night.)
Here Maestro Berglund confers with the late Jorge Bolet, working out their interpretation of Rachmaninov’s second concerto:
This video shows him in action, with Emil Gilels playing Beethoven’s Third Concerto:
UPDATE: Berglund conducting Sibelius’s tone poem The Bard: