tue 21/05/2019

A Previn treasury | reviews, news & interviews

A Previn treasury

A Previn treasury

Selected recordings of the great musician, who has died just short of his 90th birthday

Previn conducting the LSO in the 1970sLSO

In a way, he was a second Bernstein. Only 11 years Lenny's junior, and living to the much riper age of 89 – his 90th birthday would have been on 6 April – André Previn was a film composer and arranger at the start of his 70-plus-year career, a jazz pianist in a class of his own, and another fine conductor who also took his mission to educate seriously (and to entertain not so seriously, as underlined by that appearance on The Morecambe and Wise Christmas Special, destined to be endlessly recycled now).

Something of the fire had gone out of his conducting by the time I met him in his Reigate retreat in 1988 to talk about his Beethoven symphonies cycle with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (though he spoke passionately and in detail about the change in his attitude to Beethoven and his scorn for the period-instruments movement: "the idea of having to go overtime in order to make sure everyone plays out of tune is beyond me!"). Yet the heyday of the 1960s and 70s has left us a legacy of great recordings, his partnership with the London Symphony Orchestra very much at the centre.

A Jewish refugee from Nazi Berlin, turned away after three years as a piano student at the Hochschule, the nine-year-old and his family arrived in America by way of Paris in 1939. From New York they went to Los Angeles, so it was only a matter of time before the Wunderkind became involved with Hollywood as film composer and arranger; his first score was for The Sun Comes Up, a film with very little dialogue and Lassie appearing alongside Jeanette MacDonald in her final singing role on screen. His best soundtrack, I think, is for Elmer Gantry (1960); he told Edward Seckerson that at the time of composing it he'd just discovered Hindemith's Concert Music for Strings and Brass; it tells not only in the orchestration but also in the introduction. If that also sounds like Walton, soon to become another Previn speciality, that's because Walton too was under the spell of the German master.

At the same time he was playing Beethoven piano trios with Josef Szigeti, and had a reputation as a jazz pianist. Both parallel careers blossomed after the war. Among his best jazz versions are LPs devoted respectively to Weill and My Fair Lady (the full score of which he also re-arranged for the film). A personal choice here would be Rodgers and Hart's "Nobody's Heart" with another successful crossover, Leontyne Price. The slip into cocktail-bar piano at 1m45s is cool indeed.

By then (1967) his talents as a conductor of the late romantic and 20th century orchestral repertoire was established in a series of RCA recordings, most groundbreaking among them an electrifying interpretation of Walton's First Symphony which gave the work a new lease of life (the same happened with the series of Vaughan Williams symphonies). It was hardly surprising that Previn was the choice to conduct the composer's 80th birthday concert culminating in the riotous drama and ultimate celebration of Belshazzar's Feast (starting at 43m37s), happily to be heard if not seen in its entirety on YouTube (a DVD exists of both sound and vision, an invaluable document).

Three years after his 1965 recording of Shostakovich's Fifth with the LSO, he became the orchestra's chief conductor. He took them to some unexpected places – not least to the TV studios for weekly Saturday filmings of André Previn's Music Night. I remember so much of the then relatively unfamiliar repertoire well: Butterworth's The Banks of Green Willow, Ravel's La Valse, the second suite from Falla's The Three-Cornered Hat. At that point I was a bit young for regular concert-going, but I treasured the LSO recordings, made in the vintage days of a great EMI/HMV team, producer Christopher Bishop and balance engineer Christopher Parker. I got to know the complete Tchaikovsky ballets as grand, lush symphonic entities. Previn's preference for slow tempi meant that certain movements like this one from The Nutcracker were carved in my mind as the only way to do it; now I know otherwise, but I’m still fond of his take.

It seems extraordinary, now that snobbery about the Russian masterworks is a thing of the past, to find Previn taken to task by one American critic for being a "first-rate interpreter of second-rate repertoire". No-one thinks that way about his definitive Prokofiev now, and thanks partly to his championiship of an uncut Second Symphony, Rachmaninov's stature as a master symphonist went up several notches.

He left his post at the LSO after 11 years, but returned to become Conductor Laureate in 1993, and after 2016, Conductor Emeritus. Only one performance stays firm in my memory from those days, of Strauss's Eine Alpensinfonie. One might also question whether with the Vienna Philharmonic he became a "second-rate interpreter of first-rate repertoire". Some edge was also lost in performances with the Pittsburgh Symphony and Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestras (though there's a Pittsburgh Mahler 4 which is an absolute gem). His own concertos for a range of artists, including fifth wife Anne-Sophie Mutter, and his opera based on A Streetcar Named Desire, seem less likely to stand the test of time than his film music. But still, what a rich legacy from over 40 years of his creative life. And, very well, then, just as a silly encore, That Clip of Mr Preview.

Comments

If you want to name names on the quote about AP being a "first rate conductor of second rate music", the critic was Martin Bernheimer. I'll have to track down the source of the quote at some point, to see the composers to whom Bernheimer referred. I've heard but a few of Previn's own compositions on record, and he did conduct his "Diversions" in his final appearance here with the SLSO. I wouldn't say that any of what I've heard of his has really stayed with me, but compared to Bernstein, Previn is far more professional and polished, and considerably less pretentious. Very little of "Andre Previn's Music Night" has made its way to YT that I can tell. It would be good to know how much of that footage still exists.

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