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Seen and Heard Concert Review


Previn at 75 (I): Davies, Mozart, Shostakovich, London Symphony Orchestra, André Previn (piano/conductor), Barbican Centre, 14 June, 2005 (AR)



The opening for the ‘Previn at 75’ first concert started with a surprise item – the world premiere of a new work by the 32 year old composer Tansy Davies. Tilting was commissioned as part of the LSO and UBS Sound Archives. The reason the work was not advertised was purely a tactical manoeuvre by the LSO to encourage our conservative concert going public to try new music: the strategy is to surprise the audience. David Alberman, leader of the LSO’s second violins, announced regarding their newly commissioned works “for the 21st century” by eighteen UK based composers: “We will not warn you.” The idea is to present “the voices of the present and future” and “to change the symphony orchestra in the 21st century” as well as audience attitudes to new music. Davies’ Tilting is essentially a cubist composition crafted from architectural arithmetic.


Davies’ spoke of building blocks shooting out shards of now serene, now shrieking sounds in multifarious directions and leaking layers. Some of her orchestral pieces are influenced by the architect Zaha Hadid: “I see the orchestra as a huge mountain waiting to be carved up or climbed. If you look up at it, everything would be a strange angle. Hadid’s paintings of her work show every angle at once. It’s not that I have tried to reproduce a building in Tilting – it’s about looking at a really big thing from every angle and the natural distortion around it.”


Before the performance Davies introduced orchestral excerpts from Tilting commenting on its structure, gestation and mutation. The performance itself did not feel like being a mere seven minutes; it was concentrated and expansive with its architectonic structures spiralling up and down and shooting in an out, akin to Escher’s endless staircases leading to further endless staircases, without beginning, without end. Davies’ orchestral palette is multi-coloured and multi-cultural, whilst her orchestral textures are multi-layered and the mood is one of carnivalesque cacophony. Davies is a multi-vocal composer (the influences of Varese, Messiaen, Xenakis are evident here)) yet she has a unique voice that is truly her own: an extraordinary composer of sound-scapes. Christophe Mangou conducted with incisive vigour and the LSO played with their customary versatility and panache: the ‘playing’ of a 50’s style street metal garbage bin caused an intense frisson.


Previn was the soloist in Mozart’s Concerto No. 24 in C minor K491, conducting from the keyboard with agile and economic gestures. Previn is a virtuoso pianist - both jazz and classical - and played the C minor with sublime simplicity and profound poignancy - it was regrettable that he did not play the Ravel Concerto for the Left Hand at his LSO Gala Concert (to be reviewed later – editor).


From beginning to end Previn initiated a warm intimacy with his reduced orchestra. In the Allegro he produced a chillingly fragile and vulnerable sound, giving the paradoxical sensation of icy-warmth. The Larghetto was simply divine and radiant, played with crystalline clarity and simple phrasing, pure and direct, whilst the jazz tinged cadenzas were played with a child-like simplicity and playfulness as if improvised on the spot. In the Allegretto Previn adopted a mellow reserve and sedate grandeur, playing with filigree-fine finger-work. Previn’s genius was to make this tragic and dark work glow radiantly.


Previn’s performance of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony in E minor, Op. 93 had an alien brooding starkness throughout, making the music sound less streamlined and smooth textured than usual. The Moderato was broadly measured but never dragged, with the shattering climaxes arising organically. The relentless side drum had a manic impact. Especially moving during the closing movement were the sombre and eloquent woodwind solos.


The Allegro is allegedly a portrait of Stalin but today it could equally be interpreted as an image of more recent tyrants. Here the LSO percussion were not too loud, playing with a vicious vivacity. Previn conducted at the appropriate manic pace and made the music sound aptly menacing. Previn brought out the Mahlerian grotesque elements in the Allegretto enticing the woodwinds to play with an acidic bite and the strings to sound dark-grained. He emphasized the spooky moods, violently juxtaposed with more subdued moments of abject starkness. The opening Andante of the concluding movement had a sense of dismal desolation, slowly broken by the alien voice of a flute floating in the wilderness. With the Allegro the jovial and grotesque prevailed, leading into the adrenalin rush of the central climax which was nailed by an intense bass drum thud: from then on Previn led us to an exhilarating and a life-affirming victory over violence, tyranny and dictators: a moving and memorable performance.


Alex Russell


Further listening:


Mozart: Piano Concertos No. 23 & No. 27: Christian Zacharias (piano), NDR Symphony Orchestra, Günther Wand (conductor): EMI CDZ 4 79533 2


Shostakovich: Symphonies No. 4 & No. 10; Philadelphia Orchestra, Eugene Ormandy (conductor): Sony Essential Classics: SB2K 62409




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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)