Paavo Berglund (1929-2012) died this past week at the age of 82. He had been in poor health for some time. Finland is well-known for producing more than its fair share of first-class conductors and Berglund was one of the best of them. He was especially renowned as an authority on the music of Sibelius. He recorded all seven symphonies several times and made the first recording of the early Kullervo Symphony. After years of study of the Seventh Symphony Berglund edited the authoritative edition of the work published by Hansen. Berglund found many errors in previous editions.
But as a conductor Berglund often went beyond the printed score in the music of Sibelius and others to improve on what he believed were weaknesses, especially in orchestration.
Berglund has left many recordings which attest to his conducting skills. His recorded recorded cycle of the Sibelius symphonies with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe is especially interesting. While other conductors often go for the big effects in Sibelius, Berglund loved the clarity that could be achieved with an orchestra of about 50 players.
One of the unusual features of Berglund's conducting, and one which would be unknown to those who only knew him by his recordings, was that he conducted left-handed. That is, he held the baton in his left hand. Some musicians find left-handed conductors disconcerting; they complain that the beat is not where they expect it to be. But most players quickly adjust. Besides Berglund there have been other left-handed conductors such as Donald Johanos and Donald Runnicles.
On the podium Berglund had a reputation for being tough and dictatorial. But most orchestras responded well to his non-nonsense approach. Consider, for example, the statement put out by the Bournemouth Symphony - an orchestra with whom he had a long association - when the organization learned of his passing:
"The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra is sad to hear of the loss of its Conductor Emeritus Paavo Berglund, its Principal Conductor from 1972-1979. Berglund’s performances and recordings of Sibelius with the BSO are legendary and his death was announced as the Orchestra played Sibelius Symphony No.5 with Kirill Karabits, who himself worked with Paavo in Budapest. The music parts used by the Orchestra are the ones used by Paavo himself, and the Orchestra dedicated its concert last night in Cheltenham, and its concert tonight at Portsmouth Guildhall (27 January 2012), to his memory.
"Roger Preston, Co Principal Cello, who worked with Paavo on many occasions, said ‘Anyone who played with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in Kerimäki Church, Finland, as part of the BSO’s 1981 tour will tell that it was a truly unforgettable experience. On this tour we played all the Sibelius Symphonies, with Paavo on spectacular form. Many of Paavo’s comments, criticisms and demands are as fresh in my mind as though it were only yesterday. He remains, for me, one of the best, if not the best conductor that I have ever played for, and I am so grateful to have caught the latter days of Paavo’s extraordinarily fruitful relationship with the BSO.’”
Paul E. Robinson