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S & H Concert Review

Previn, Violin Concerto, Rachmaninov, Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Anne-Sophie Mutter (violin), London Symphony Orchestra, André Previn, Barbican, 11th June 2002 (MB)


By a strange coincidence I watched Paul Harold’s 1964 Bette Davis thriller, Dead Ringer, at the weekend, a film for which Previn composed the score. His new Violin Concerto, of which this was the European premiere, is stylistically very different – gone are the Hermannesque flashes, for example – and yet comparisons are not exactly pointless between the Previn of almost 40 years ago and the Previn of today. He still has a remarkable ear for what works, and his orchestration can be highly accomplished; indeed, it is almost dramatic in the panorama of its cinemascopic design.

Ironically, this work replaced the scheduled concerto – Korngold’s – and yet it owes a great deal to that delicate, neo-Romantic masterpiece. This is most apparent in the solo writing, which concentrates largely on spinning tonally rich sonorities – and for which Anne-Sophie Mutter’s glorious sound is ideally suited. However, despite this the impression the concerto leaves in the solo writing is often a hackneyed one: so much of the phrasing is echt Shostakovich or Bartok, and whilst technically the concerto is ‘difficult’ it is not virtuosic in the most conventional sense of the word (only once, for example, is the soloist required to bow and pizzicato simultaneously). Harmonics are invariably stretched, although never to breaking point.

Written conventionally over three movements the concerto is a long work – longer than either the Brahms or the Beethoven concerti. The centrepiece is an exquisite middle movement with a fast trio section framed between two slower outer sections. It is musically quite barren, with a quite acidic sound to it, certainly a contrast to the opening movement’s Korngoldian lushness. Beginning with a long-breathed cadenza it develops an other-worldly, contemplative manner and is highly effective in spinning a web of intricate sounds and revolving passions. The final movement doesn’t quite match this scale (indeed, it seemed over long).

Both Mutter and the LSO played with fine dedication a concerto that deserves wider currency.

Much more compelling was a simply fabulous performance of Rachmaninov’s E minor symphony. Recorded for streaming on it is regrettable that the LSO did not record this performance for their own LSO Live label (instead, we shall get a less than compelling Mahler 4). By any stretch of the imagination the orchestral playing was peerless – from anthracite strings, through to honeyed woodwind and burnished brass. And, whilst Previn’s interpretation might lack the astringency of a Sanderling or a Mravinsky in this work it does not lack shape or passion. In a symphony that works best taken in a single broad arch Previn invests the symphony with a clear affinity, even though his tempi have slowed and his rubato has somewhat intensified – not least in the final movement coda which Previn shapes deliberately, but to thrilling effect.

In a work which requires a conductor and orchestra to convey emotions of passion and wildness, of pathos and ferocity, of elegy and toughness it is difficult to imagine a better performance than this one. With the LSO strings on stunning form (quite overwhelming from the bass line, in fact) this was playing which had everything. A magnificent clarinet solo from Andrew Marriner in the intense adagio added to the sense that this was not so much a meticulously prepared performance as one prepared from a love of the work, and one in which conductor and orchestra were in rare unison. With the Cleveland Orchestra due at the Barbican on Thursday for a short two day residency their playing will really have to be exceptional to match the sheer quality of the LSO on what was world-beating form.


Marc Bridle


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