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André Previn
The Warner Edition - Complete HMV and Teldec Recordings
rec. 1971-87
WARNER 9029506573 [96 CDs]

This review is my way of paying tribute to my old neighbour Gerald. Like me, Gerald bought every new LP that he could afford, and from the beginning of André Previn’s time in London with the LSO he took a shine to every new Previn release – at first on RCA, including such celebrated artefacts as Walton’s First Symphony and all nine Vaughan Williams symphonies. Previn even presented a TV programme entitled ‘Nine Symphonies by Who?’ about RVW. I was firmly in the Boult camp and every time Gerald invited me in to hear his latest Previn acquisition – he was particularly delighted by the long HMV series – I am afraid I was rather unenthusiastic. I was also influenced by my preference for the sort of sound made by the LPO and Philharmonia, and by reports of the LSO’s arrogant behaviour. I now see Previn through the prism of his later concerts and recordings and I can be more dispassionate, but Gerald is long gone, taken by cancer before his time.

HMV’s partnership with Previn began at the end of May 1971 with unpromising material, Ravi Shankar’s Concerto for sitar and orchestra. The conductor was very rude about this mish-mash, neither Indian music nor European, and I shall say no more except to note that the three rehearsal excerpts are among a select few things remastered by the Wizards of Annecy (Studio Art & Son, hereafter SASA). A week or so later, Previn’s real engagement with the HMV team got off to a crackling start with a Gershwin disc: in Rhapsody in Blue and the Concerto I can definitely say that AP not only plays all the right notes, but plays them in the right order. An American in Paris completes a classic programme but we are also offered a rehearsal extract for this work, in mono tweaked by SASA.

This may be the cue to deal with all the discs featuring Previn the pianist. The 1972 Brahms Piano Quintet is a first-rate account: the Yale Quartet were a great ensemble and Broadus Erle was, to my mind, the greatest American quartet leader. The Ravel and Shostakovich Trios with Young Uck Kim (here spelt Yong) and Ralph Kirshbaum are musically played but the first misses the style and the second cannot hold a candle to, say, Gilels, Kogan and Rostropovich. On the other hand, the Mendelssohn-Schumann trio coupling with Kyung-Wha Chung and Paul Tortelier can happily be recommended. A real surprise for me is the 1973 pairing of Mozart’s K463 and K491, with Boult’s noble accompaniments: remastered by SASA, it is a gem I missed when it first came out. The conductor-less coupling of K365 for two pianos and K466 is enjoyable but the balance between Previn and Radu Lupu is bad in K365, while K466 does not quite come off: Previn’s own cadenza in the finale is quite individual. Two discs of Victorian songs and ballads got off to a bad start when the first one was named after Sullivan’s duet The Dicky Bird and the Owl, giving the impression that this repertoire was being sent up. Vocal enthusiasts also have a huge memory bank of artists who really could sing these pieces: would you seriously prefer Robert Tear to Walter Widdop in Tom Bowling, The Death of Nelson and ‘Yes! Let me like a soldier fall’, or Benjamin Luxon to Peter Dawson and Robert Radford in The Trumpeter and The Diver respectively? Much more successful are the Brahms Lieder with Janet Baker and Cecil Aronowitz.

One of the best features of the Previn/HMV years was a successful rapport with Itzhak Perlman, then arguably the world’s finest violinist – especially after Leonid Kogan’s death in 1981. The concertos they recorded together by Mendelssohn, Bruch, Bartók, Sibelius, Korngold, Conus, Goldmark, Sarasate (Zigeunerweisen) and Sinding (the Op. 10 Suite) were uniformly of high quality, but they also indulged themselves in three lighter discs with Previn at the piano: a delightful programme of Joplin rags and two agreeable ventures into jazz with the rhythm section of Shelly Manne, Jim Hall and Red Mitchell. Among other soloists here, Simon Preston in Poulenc and Ángel Romero in Rodrigo are both admirable. However, in the Dvořák Cello Concerto with Tortelier, Previn commits the usual sin of not really establishing the rhythm at the start: while not as soggy as Bernstein for Maisky, he does not serve his soloist well. Worst of all is the Walton Viola Concerto with Nigel Kennedy, who might as well not be present, so pathetic is his viola tone; the Violin Concerto is adequate but this sort of Music Minus One viola playing was unacceptable even in 1987 (violinists are still stealing viola repertoire and making a hash of it, cf. James Ehnes). Towards the end of the box, from Previn’s RPO period, we get a tip-top cycle of the Saint-Saëns piano concertos with Jean-Philippe Collard.

What about the orchestral works which make up a large percentage of the box? With the best will in the world, I cannot imagine anyone preferring Previn in symphonies by Haydn, Beethoven, Sibelius and Mahler at this stage of his career. No. 88, my favourite Haydn symphony, is really quite humdrum in places. The Russian repertoire is a different matter. Previn’s imagination was clearly captured by Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony and it led to him recording all the symphonies, the Third being very fine. He also gets lovely effects in the problematic First. For some reason I had ‘remembered’ his version of The Bells being in English (there is an honourable tradition of doing this work in English and Henry Wood premičred the revised version at the 1936 Sheffield Festival in the composer’s presence). Despite excellent efforts by the three soloists and chorus, Previn’s performance does not compete with the best Russian rivals. But in general, the Rachmaninov series, also including The Isle of the Dead and the Symphonic Dances, is a good alternative for those who are allergic to Russian orchestras and recordings. It was all remastered in 2017 by Warner Japan, presumably for a Previn Rachmaninov box set. I know many British listeners esteem Previn’s Tchaikovsky, which includes all three ballets, The Nutcracker twice (the second time with the RPO). I can take it or leave it. Much of his Prokofiev is good, the highlight being the Seventh Symphony – strangely, Previn fails to motivate the LSO in the ‘Classical’ Symphony, and Lieutenant Kijé, without a baritone soloist, does not come off (my current favourite for this suite is Andrew Litton, who also has the best soloist). Alexander Nevsky still sounds spectacular, with the wonderful Anna Reynolds and the choir doing their utmost. Of the two ballets, Cinderella goes well and if Romeo and Juliet lacks the concentration of, say, Karel Ančerl’s excerpts, it is very acceptable. A curiosity is having two versions of the Peter and the Wolf /Young Person’s Guide coupling, one narrated in English, the other in German (Previn handles both languages in the Britten). As in Tchaikovsky, I really prefer Russians in Shostakovich and I feel a Russian male-voice choir is needed in the 13th Symphony – Previn does it creditably, however, and his Bulgarian soloist Dimiter Petkov is in the right groove. The Fourth and Fifth Symphonies are played by the Chicago Symphony.

No less an authority than Felix Aprahamian commended Previn’s Debussy and Ravel, so I shall simply say that my sympathies usually lie elsewhere. I can, however, share FA’s enthusiasm for this recording of L’enfant et les sortilčges, which is well cast and very well conducted. Another vocal triumph is the disc of Duparc and Chausson with Janet Baker. I am not much of a Berlioz buff, so cannot really assess the four CDs of his music; and I cannot be doing with Messiaen’s Turangalila, except to note that it has been squeezed on to one 80-minute disc. Moving to British music, I emphatically prefer Boult to Previn in Elgar and Holst but Walton – concertos apart – comes across well, especially Belshazzar’s Feast with John Shirley-Quirk and terrific choral singing. Britten is well served and it is worth noting that this 1973 version of the Sinfonia da Requiem was Previn’s second: he clearly felt strongly about the piece. An absolute hoot is Constant Lambert’s The Rio Grande, although Jean Temperley is not the strongest of soloists – Lambert himself employed a male alto and it might have been fun to give one of the regiment of modern countertenors an outing.

Moving to the German wing, those who think of Previn as an equable-tempered, easy-going guy may be surprised by the intensity and sheer vehemence of his Brahms German Requiem: set down in July 1986 at All Saints, Tooting, with Tony Faulkner as engineer, it is the sole Teldec recording here. The Ambrosian Singers perform splendidly, Margaret Price is ideal for her single movement and this is some of the best singing I have heard from Samuel Ramey. New to me, this disc is welcome. The sole work from the Nazi era to have passed into the repertoire, Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana was treated to a Previn spectacular in 1974, with excellent soloists and choirs. As Jeremy Summerley noted in ‘Building a Library’ the other day, it has lasted less well than much else here, but it still packs a punch. With Richard Strauss, we get to the very heart of Previn’s interests, and I am grateful to Rob Cowan for pointing me to the 1974 disc of Lieder, including the Four Last Songs, with Anneliese Rothenberger: I might not have paid it full attention, in which case I would have missed another jewel. The miscellaneous Lieder are lovely and I think this is now my favourite modern version of the Four Last Songs, although Arleen Auger’s performance with Previn and the VPO is also very fine (my all-time favourite is Lisa Della Casa and I adore both versions with Sena Jurinac and Fritz Busch). Other Strauss discs feature three early symphonic poems, with the VPO and Previn on good form, and An Alpine Symphony with the Philadelphia Orchestra – I prefer Previn/VPO and I like Ozawa/VPO better than either of them.

Among the bits and bobs are an enjoyable 1985 Mozart programme of (mostly) concert arias with Kathleen Battle and the RPO, and various collections of short pieces with the LSO, on one of which former Prime Minister Edward Heath conducts Cockaigne. Most of Disc 33 is taken up by the famous recording of Holst’s little opera The Wandering Scholar, conducted by Steuart Bedford, who died recently. A second Previn Gershwin disc, on which he hands over the piano to Cristina Ortiz, is much less successful than the first one. The final CD in the box is one of Jon Tolansky’s audio documentaries – on which we hear how many dissenting voices there were in the LSO when Previn was originally hired. Tolansky also contributes a note to a rather skimpy booklet: it has an index of works and a number of photos, and that is all. Track and recording details are on the individual pochettes in which the discs are housed: the original artwork, sometimes rather dated, is reproduced on the front of each pochette. Whatever approach you take to this box, there is enough here to warrant the moderate price.

Tully Potter
Contents: see here

Previous reviews: Jonathan Woolf ~ Michael Cookson

Footnote from Jonathan Woolf
Only some 2019-2021 (mainly) Studio Art & Son, Annecy remasterings are here. Nine of the 95 discs (disc 96 is the documentary) are heard in new 2021 remasterings and they are as follows:

CD1; the never-before released rehearsal segments of the Ravi Shankar Concerto for Sitar and Orchestra – about seven and a half minutes (in mono)
CD2; A nine-minute rehearsal of An American in Paris, again in mono and previously unreleased
CD4; the LSO Gala Concert of November 1971 is heard in full in 2021 remasterings. The first piece is Cockaigne conducted live in the Royal Festival Hall by Britain’s then prime minister Edward Heath, the poor man’s Willy Brandt. Previn conducts Bernstein’s Candide overture, VW’s Fantasia on Greensleeves and Enescu’s Romanian Rhapsody No.1 in the Abbey Road studios. The ‘Gala Concert’ LP idea was always a bit cheeky
CD12; Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony was remastered by Studio Art & Son, Annecy in 2019; fine restoration, very average performance
CD14; Walton (Symphony 2, Portsmouth Point, Scapino overture) and Constant Lambert (The Rio Grande with Cristina Ortiz and Jean Temperley). Highly effective 2021 remasterings by Studio Art & Son that pack a real punch
CD21: Mozart Piano Concertos 17 and 24 with Adrian Boult; 2021 restorations as above
CD22; Holst’s The Planets; 2019 restorations by Studio Art & Son, Annecy
CD26 Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony was remastered by Warner Japan in 2019
CD27; Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony; 2019 Studio Art & Son, Annecy
CD38; André Previn’s Music Night; music from his admired BBC TV programme remastered 2021 by Studio Art & Son
CD40: Home Sweet Home, Victorian Songs and Ballads, volume 2 with Previn on the piano accompanying Robert Tear and Benjamin Luxon, 2021 transfers though note that volume 1, The Dicky Bird and the Owl (CD17) is heard in 1993 transfers.
CD43; Mozart Concertos (Previn and Rudu Lupu) is a 2019 remaster
CD44; Haydn Symphonies 88 and 96; sparkling witty performances in a 2021 Studio Art & Son remaster
CD45; Tchaikovsky and Liszt Concertos with Horacio Gutiérrez (2021 remasters)
CD50; André Previn’s Music Night – see CD38 but note that CD50 contains Barber’s Adagio and Butterworth’s The Banks of Green Willow
CD65; Mendelssohn’s Fourth Symphony, and three overtures. A 2021 remastering

Footnote from Len Mullenger
To my mind this release is not what it might have been. In the Warner complete Barbirolli box all the discs were superbly re-mastered by Art & Son, Annecy. This made the box worthwhile even though many of the recordings might have already been nestling on our shelves. That is why I bought my copy. With the Previn set the majority of the discs are identical to those previously reissued and only a few have been remastered by Art & Son. So where is the incentive to buy this box if you are simply repurchasing recordings you already own? I have to say I do not really see a market for this release. I hope that when they get round to a Klemperer box they send it all to Art & Son.

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