André Previn Rolls Back the Years in Rachmaninov with the LSO

15/06/2015

 Previn and Rachmaninov: Anne-Sophie Mutter (violin), London Symphony Orchestra / André Previn (conductor), Barbican Hall, Barbican Centre, London, 10.6.2015. (AS)

Previn – Violin Concerto

Rachmaninov – Symphony No.2 in E minor, Op. 27

Almost half a century has passed since André Previn conducted the LSO for the first time, at a RCA recording session. The work was Tchaikovsky’s Little Russian Symphony No.2, and the date was 20 August 1965. Eight months later Previn and the LSO made their first recording of Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony, again for RCA. This was the version of the score usually played in those days, with cuts sanctioned by the composer. Previn later decided to perform the score uncut, and made a pioneering recording of the complete version with the LSO for EMI in January 1973 (review). This recording, and performances of the work that Previn and the LSO had already given on a tour of Russia and the Far East, did more than anything else to bring about general acceptance that the score should be performed uncut. Thus it was a special occasion on this June evening in the Barbican Hall when Previn, now the LSO’s Conductor Laureate, returned to the orchestra he had led as its Principal Conductor for 11 years during the late 1960s and 1970s.

Time has taken physical toll of Previn, now in his mid-eighties, but once he was helped on to the platform and into a comfortable swivel chair he was in complete control of proceedings. This was evidenced by the wonderfully warm sonority he obtained from the strings at the beginning of the work, and the players’ beautiful shaping of Rachmaninov’s expansive melodic lines. The surging rhythms, the long, sweeping phrases, the ebb and flow in the musical argument were all testament to Previn’s mastery. Clearly this symphony has lost none of its appeal to him over the years. He was also able to generate surprising energy and tension in the playing when this was called for, especially in the second movement scherzo, whose contrasting trio section was lovingly caressed.

It seemed as if Previn had adopted a slower basic tempo than of yore for the Adagio, with the long clarinet solo projected by Andrew Marriner seamlessly and with fine artistry, but a later comparison of timings revealed that this was an illusion wrought by Previn’s ability to create a sense of space and repose, for his account of the movement here was in fact a good deal faster than his 1973 recording. Throughout the work the LSO’s playing was of the highest virtuosity and tonal lustre: no doubt the players were keen to show their former chief that its orchestral glories of the 1960s and 1970s were being maintained.

The concert’s first half contained Previn’s own Violin Concerto, written in 2001 for Anne-Sophie Mutter. With the composer conducting and the dedicatee as soloist no performance of this work could have been more authoritative. Mutter’s playing was superlative technically and the sounds she drew from her 1710 ‘Lord Dunn-Raven’ Stradivarius were gloriously seductive. The work itself is skilfully laid out for a large orchestra, and is unfailingly appealing to the ear, but its eclectic mixture of twentieth-century composing styles is distracting: the varied episodes fall confusingly on top of one other, and in the end there is no sense of a musical journey having been convincingly made. For those who wish to explore this work in more depth Mutter and Previn have made a recording of it for DG (review).

As an encore Mutter played the middle movement from Previn’s Tango, Song and Dance, another work written for her, originally cast for violin and piano but performed here with orchestral accompaniment.

Alan Sanders   

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