Just in: magisterial conductor has died

Paavo Berglund, the austere, authoritative and vastly accomplished Finnish maestro has passed away, aged 82.

Renowned in Sibelius, he developed a Mozart style that – like Neville Marriner’s – modified the difference between romantic and period interpretation.  Never the most approachable of men, I found him polite, agreeable and carefully unassuming. We went shopping once together in a Copenhagen street market.

As well as founding the Helsinki Chamber Orchestra and heading the radio orchestra and the philharmonic, he was chief conductor in Bournemouth, Stockholm and Copenhagen.

Here‘s a Finnish appreciation.

Paavo Berglund vuonna 1993.

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  • Paavo was truly the greatest Finnish conductor – a completely different breed from the next generation of “star conductors”. We have to thank him for expecting and demanding higher standard of orchestral playing from Finnish orchestras. He was tireless in studying, preparing and rehearsing. He almost always came to the orchestra with his own materials he had corrected and bowed by his own hand. I was lucky to hear some of his last performances in Finland and to have a couple of conversations with the great man.

      • Oh, they were really casual, and mostly we talked about his friendship with Kurt Masur whose assistant in Paris I was at the time. Nevertheless it was great to talk with this legend of Finnish musical life and see his eyes light up when I told him news about his old friend.

  • Paavo Berglund was one of the greatest conductors I ever worked with. I was privileged to invite him to guest conduct the National Arts Center Orchestra Ottawa in 1986, when i was manager there. He conducted with his left hand, that took some getting used to for the orchestra, and in his dressing room he had a left handed violin that he played in the rehearsal breaks.

    He chose a programme that had Sibelius 6 in the first half and Schubert 9 in the second. I had never rated Sibelius 6 before that and he stunned me and many others by showing us all what a great work it is. The Sibelius – Schubert combination worked briliantly.

    At my request he did Valse Triste as an encore. I had heard the piece often and thought of it as a light encore, again he utterly stunned us all with the most moving and passionate rendering of this piece, I had never heard it like that before.

    I had many conversations with him. we talked about Sibelius 5 and the difficulty of performing the hammer blows in the last movement. He pointed out that most conductors are afraid of the pauses between the blows, and speed the tempo up much too much to cut down the rests. He told me that you have to be courageous and hold back the tempo before the end. I heard him do this piece a year later and the delays between the hammer blows were so long the tension was unbelievable.. I have never heard such a convincing performance. Fopr me his Sibelius Symphony recordings from the 1970s remain the best ever, the definitive recordings of these works.

    He was modest , quiet, and had a wry sense of humour. he told me that when he first went to the USA he had to go to the usual receptions of “blue rinse” board members after concerts, and was always asked the following same questions:

    “Is this your first time in (Kansas City, Saint Louis etc etc)?”

    “How do you like it here”?

    Ater a while he would walk into the reception and immediately say before anyone could ask him anything,

    “This is my first time here in … and I really like it here…”

    After that the conversation was over quickly as none had any more questions, and he was able to leave…

    Unfortunately he had a self destructive streak and oocasional succumbed to alcohol.

    Jukka Pekka Saraste knew him well and has many stories.

    This was a great man.

  • Paavo Berglund had a close friendship with the composer Joonas Kokkonen (1921-1996). The collaboration was very strong. He really championed his music as much as possible and also helped him during the difficult times in life (e.g. when Kokkonen’s wife died after an illness). This was another important chapter in the life of this great maestro, one maybe not so well-known to those outside of his native country.

    Therefore, when I think about Paavo Berglund, I am not just thinking about the Sibelius 5th, but also of the Kokkonen 3rd !

    “Vita brevis, ars longa”

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