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André Previn The Warner Edition-Complete HMV & Teldec Recordings
rec. 1971-87 WARNER CLASSICS 9029506573 [96 CDs]
‘I didn’t know if I was going to play Swan Lake or Blueberry Hill… I didn’t care!’
André Previn on working at MGM studios, Hollywood.
In honour of André Previn (1929-2019), Warner Classics has released its new collection of a ninety-six CD box set The Warner Edition – Complete HMV & Teldec Recordings. The set comprises of Previn’s entire HMV (EMI Classics) and Teldec discographies spanning the period 1971-87. Remarkably Previn’s music career bridged seven decades, together with his prolific achievements in the recording studio which were practically as long. Becoming a ‘household name’, Previn often appeared on primetime television notably in the 1970s for his Music Night series of concerts and also in the 1980s as a chat-show host and an award-winning Previn and the Pittsburgh series. His celebrity status, including the famous Morecambe and Wise sketch, his jazz performances and his colourful personal life, including his marriages and associations with Hollywood film stars, sometimes obscured his reputation as a serious classical music conductor, performer and composer. With such a large collection as The Warner Edition it seems appropriate to provide some context to Previn’s rise to fame.
His career was the epitome of the great American dream. A formerly wealthy, middle-class, non-practising Jewish family fleeing the Berlin of Nazi Germany in 1938, the Prewins (later surname anglicised to Previn) went first to Paris for a few months while awaiting their American visas. When aged six, André had won a scholarship to study at the Berlin Conservatory but was then also successful in his audition for the Paris Conservatory under the guidance of organist Marcel Dupré. They eventually arrived in America by ship, first to New York then settled in Los Angeles in 1939, safe from persecution but penniless and unable to speak the language. Previn’s father Jack was a judge with a large legal practice in Berlin, but his skills were not transferable to his new country - except for being able to play the piano moderately well as an amateur. His wife Lotte, accustomed to house servants, had never cooked a meal. The young Previn was ten when he began school in Los Angeles and was soon taking music lessons from composers Joseph Achron, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco and Ernst Toch all of whom wrote film scores for Hollywood with varying success. Attending high school by day, at night he would gain experience by playing piano with pit orchestras at vaudeville theatres, with dance bands and also at Jazz clubs often until the early hours. Almost immediately he was taken by the jazz idiom, especially the music of pianist Art Tatum. As word of this talented pianist got around, a number of Previn’s engagements were recorded as programmes for radio broadcast. Having a child prodigy turned everything around for the Previn family, as he was to achieve early international acclaim as an Academy Award and Grammy Award-winning composer and arranger, a conductor of world-renowned orchestras with a wide symphonic repertoire. Multi-talented, Previn was both a concert and jazz pianist, a chamber music performer, and also became a popular television and radio personality.
His beginnings were small: aged fifteen and by then an American citizen, Previn was asked by the major Hollywood studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer to undertake the rather minor task of improvising a jazz arrangement on the tune Three Blind Mice for the musical romance Holiday in Mexico (1946). Although still a pupil at the Beverly Hills High School, he was given a retainer by the studio for further small jobs. Enjoying the hands-on experience and the variety of tasks, André said he never knew from one day to the next ‘if I was going to play Swan Lake or Blueberry Hill… I didn’t care!’ After graduation from High School aged only sixteen, he eagerly began working full time at MGM’s Hollywood studios, describing it as ‘a Walter Mitty-like dream’ where for some years to come he was working closely with the greatest movie stars and singers, including Debbie Reynolds, Cyd Charisse, Gene Kelly, Judy Garland, Doris Day, Audrey Hepburn, James Cagney, Betty Davis, Spencer Tracy and Frank Sinatra.
Meanwhile, Previn was also playing with the California Youth Orchestra under leading conductors such as Sir John Barbirolli and chamber music with the great violinist Joseph Szigeti. Thrown in at the deep end, Previn undertook a succession of arrangements and orchestrations, wrote original music, and played in and conducted studio orchestras for the some of the greatest Hollywood directors and movie stars. There is a splendid photograph of Previn age seventeen conducting at one of the MGM sound stages. Although not acknowledged in the credits, in 1948 Previn completed his first movie score, The Kissing Bandit, starring Sinatra and Kathryn Grayson. That same year he was officially credited with his first complete movie score, The Sun Comes Up, starring Jeanette MacDonald and canine star Lassie. Years later, Previn disparaged his contribution, joking, ‘Like all Lassie pictures, there was hardly any dialogue, but a lot of barking.’
In 1950, his work at the studios was interrupted when Previn was conscripted into the US army. The Korean War had just broken out and he undertook basic training like his fellow recruits, living in barracks for two years and attaining the rank of Sergeant. He meanwhile received conducting instruction from the renowned Pierre Monteux of the San Francisco Symphony and was able to play in jazz clubs some evenings. Fortunately, after demob his job at MGM was waiting still for him and he went on to be involved to various degrees in some fifty movies. Probably the best known of his original soundtracks include the crime thriller Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), the drama Emer Gantry (1960), the romance The Subterraneans (1960), the drama Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1962), the horror film Dead Ringer (1964) and the comedy The Fortune Cookie (1966). His contribution of additional songs written for the hit film version of the Lerner and Loewe musical Paint Your Wagon (1969) is sometimes overlooked. Previn’s accomplishments were widely recognised by nominations for eleven Academy Awards, of which he won four for both his musical adaptations and his original scores for Gigi (Oscar 1958), Porgy and Bess (Oscar 1959), Irma la Douce (Oscar 1963) and My Fair Lady (Oscar 1964). In addition, he received forty-four Grammy nominations for a range of music achievements, mainly recordings, winning ten awards including a Grammy lifetime achievement award in 2010. In the field of musicals, Previn wrote CoCo (1970) for Broadway starring Katherine Hepburn and The Good Companions (1974) for London’s West End featuring John Mills and Judy Dench.
Previn wrote the incidental music to Tom Stoppard’s stage play Every Good Boy Deserves Favour directed by Sir Trevor Nunn which was premiered in 1977 at the Royal Festival Hall, London. He soon recorded his score to Stoppard’s play, subtitled A Play for Actors and Orchestra, on RCA Red Seal. The world of opera was not overlooked as Previn wrote two scores: first A Streetcar Named Desire (premiered in San Francisco 1998) with a libretto by Philip Littell based on the Tennessee Williams play. The second opera was Brief Encounter (premiere Houston 2009) with John Caird providing the libretto based on both Noël Coward’s play Still Life (1936) and expanded screenplay for the David Lean film Brief Encounter (1945). Another Previn-Stoppard collaboration was the monodrama Penelope based on Homer’s classic poem The Odyssey a work intended for Tanglewood’s celebration of Previn’s ninetieth birthday. Previn’s final work Penelope was left unfinished at his death in 2019; using David Fetherolf’s realisation, it was premiered the same year at the Tanglewood Festival.
As early as 1945, some years before he began making recordings of classical music as a performer or conductor, the teenage Previn made numerous jazz recordings and demonstrated how comfortable he was in the studio in the early phase of what proved to be a long and prolific recording career. Luckily Previn had been accompanying Sinatra on a radio broadcast and in the audience was a talent spotter from RCA studios that led to a recording contract with the company. Although Previn referred to it as ‘a fluke’ in 1949 he had substantial success with his first recording for RCA Victor the solo album Andre Previn at the Piano.
In 1956, together with drummer Shelly Manne and bassist Leroy Vinneger, Previn had used a garage to record the easy listening jazz album Shelly Manne & His Friends. The album comprises of show tune adaptations from the hit Broadway stage musical My Fair Lady (1956) with permission from the creators Lerner and Loewe. Released on Contemporary Records the sales of the album benefited greatly from the success of the actual musical and became a bestselling jazz album for the trio. They then tried to replicate this success with several other show albums, coming the closest with jazz adaptions from West Side Story, but nothing was quite the same, and later Previn left RCA for the Columbia label. At MGM however, Previn was achieving impressive renown as ‘a one-man musical assembly line’ and was awarded his first Oscar for Gigi on his twenty-ninth birthday in 1958. His second Oscar followed the next year for Porgy and Bess made as usual with MGM although on this occasion his contract had expired, and he now decided to work in Hollywood as a freelancer. Leaving MGM to become a freelancer allowed him the flexibility to conduct classical music as well as writing film scores. Previn’s third Oscar in 1963 with Irma la Douce was for United Artists and in 1964 his fourth Oscar success with My Fair Lady was for Warner Brothers.
Around 1963 Previn was switching focus away from movies at Hollywood and in spite of still being regarded by many people as a jazz artist, he was gradually becoming known as a gifted conductor of classical music. There were early conducting engagements with several American orchestras including the renowned Cleveland Orchestra and ‘beer and pretzel’ pops concerts with the St. Louis Symphony where programmes included for example Prokofiev’s Scythian Suite and music from Britten’s Peter Grimes. Other prestigious engagements were as soloist in piano concertos by Beethoven, Rachmaninov and Prokofiev with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and New York Philharmonic.
Recognition arrived relatively quickly and between the years 1967-2006 Previn went on to hold six major conductor posts some concurrently. First there was the Houston Symphony Orchestra (1967-69) as music director following Sir John Barbirolli, then the London Symphony Orchestra (1968-79) taking over as principal conductor from Istvan Kertesz, and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra (1976-84) as music director succeeding William Steinberg. Previn then went to Los Angeles Philharmonic (1985-89) as music director after Carlo Maria Giulini; the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (1985-92) as chief conductor following Walter Weller and also the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra (2002-06) as musical director where he followed Maris Jansons. Although he was not to everyone’s taste and divided opinion, orchestras knew that having Previn on board would most likely boost audience numbers and increase record sales. As a guest conductor, his appearances with the Vienna Philharmonic were notable, and he also made recordings with other great orchestras, such as the Staatskapelle Dresden, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra and the London Philharmonic Orchestra. It was a poignant occasion when in 1968 Previn returned to Berlin the city of his birth to conduct the Berliner Philharmonic as this was the orchestra conducted by the legendary Wilhelm Furtwängler when as a young child he had gone to concerts with his father.
In the recording studio, Previn recorded a wide range of mainstream repertoire mainly from Romantic to the mid-twentieth century era, leaving a copious legacy. Columbia Records signed up him at a fortuitous time, as the label was beginning to introduce stereo and re-recording much of its standard repertoire. Previn’s early Columbia recordings were quite diverse. For example, the Gershwin Piano Concerto in F major and Rhapsody in Blue with Previn as soloist conducted by André Kostelanetz and his Orchestra (1960); Hindemith, Samuel Barber and Frank Martin solo piano works (1961); Together with Love an easy listening album duetting on piano with soprano Eileen Farrell (1962), Piano Pieces for Children (1963) and conducting an album of Copland’s The Red Pony coupled with Britten Sinfonia da Requiem with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (1964). These recordings are included on the 2018 Sony release a fifty-five CD box set The Classic Andre Previn – The Complete RCA and Columbia Album Collection. The Sony set has Previn’s complete classical recordings made for the Columbia Masterworks and RCA Red Seal labels spanning thirty-five years from 1960-95 and contains his complete cycle of the Vaughan Williams symphonies (review), a number of Beethoven Symphonies and Piano Concertos with soloists by Emanuel Ax (review). There are also three works by Walton, a composer whose music Previn was said to have a special affinity. Particularly memorable is his celebrated 1966 recording of the Symphony No. 1 (review).
Released on EMI Classics in 2009 there is a ten CD box set titled Andre Previn - The Great Recordings - The LSO Years 1971-1980 (review). All the recordings in the EMI box are contained on this new Warner Edition. There are of course the recordings Previn made for Deutsche Grammophon and Decca. Worth mentioning is a most splendid six CD set on Deutsche Grammophon released in 2009 to mark André Previn’s eightieth birthday titled André Previn - A Celebration recordings that span the period 1975-2002. For A Celebration Previn personally chose the programme from his Deutsche Grammophon and Decca recordings. Here Previn took the opportunity to include a number of his own works including the Double Concerto for violin & contrabass, Violin Concerto (Anne-Sophie) and Diversions for Orchestra (review). Both the 2009 Deutsche Grammophon and 2018 Sony sets together with this Warner Edition collection attest to Previn’s, oft-mentioned special admiration for French, English and Russian music. Nonetheless, Previn certainly did not neglect Austro/German repertoire and there are many such examples on this new collection chiefly Haydn, Mozart, Mendelssohn, Beethoven, Brahms and Richard Strauss.
There is, of course, also Previn’s recording output on Philips, in particular his readings of the Elgar symphonies which received mixed receptions. He recorded Symphony No. 1 with the RPO in 1985 and Symphony No. 2 with the LSO in 1993. For one so prolific in the recording studio, there are some surprising exceptions in Previn’s discography such as his exceedingly thin output of Copland, Mahler, Schubert, Schumann, Sibelius and Stravinsky. Previn’s opera output, unlike say his older contemporary Karajan, is even more meagre, markedly lacking even the great masters of the opera house, notably Donizetti, Puccini, Rossini, Verdi and Wagner. In 1990 Previn did however record Die Fledermaus the Johann Strauss II operetta with a starry cast including Kiri Te Kanawa, Edita Gruberova and Brigitte Fassbaender at the Musikverein, Vienna, on Decca. There is also the Mozart singspiel Der Schauspieldirektor (The Impresario) recorded in 1967 on RCA Red Seal/Sony and Ravel’s L’Enfant et les Sortileges (The Child and the Spells) from 1981 on EMI/Philips, but I cannot think of any more complete opera releases.
This newly assembled collection The Warner Edition – Complete HMV & Teldec Recordings comprises of recordings almost all having been first released on the HMV/EMI label. The Brahms Requiem (CD 92) is the only recording in the set on the Teldec label. So, unless stated otherwise all the recordings mentioned from here on are on EMI. The set predominantly contains orchestral music including ballets, a number of concertos, some choral orchestral and several chamber works. By my reckoning, there are two hundred and thirty-five works in total including a number of short works specifically ten Joplin piano rags, eighteen Previn pieces and twenty-seven Victorian songs and ballads leaving an impressive one hundred and eighty substantial works. A single CD is allocated to Previn’s L.S.O. Gala Concert in 1971 and a second CD is given over to a 1976 recording of the André Previn Music Night that includes six works from the concert of favourite music featured in the BBC TV series with the LSO. Added to the collection as a bonus, CD 96 is a new documentary André Previn – A Memoir produced and narrated by Jon Tolansky. Throughout, the content is highly engaging and includes interviews with several LSO members, playwright Sir Tom Stoppard and Previn himself, together with a number of music extracts.
For most tastes I doubt whether there is any markedly challenging music on this Warner collection. Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie might prove the most difficult for some, although performances are not uncommon today. I would also add the Ravi Shankar Sitar Concerto which is an interesting work but certainly an acquired taste. Of all the works on the set, the vast majority could be defined as standard repertoire although out of so many works there are a few exceptions. Seldom encountered or currently out of fashion are probably the Shankar Sitar Concerto, Constant Lambert cantata Rio Grande, Britten Spring Symphony, Holst chamber opera Wandering Scholar and the Goldmark Violin concerto and First Symphony. Several other works could be classed as rarities such as the two volumes of Victorian song and ballads, the Previn pieces for jazz quintet too, and maybe most of the Joplin piano rags.
All the works in this Warner collection are arranged chronologically by recording date. According to the label, all the recordings have been either remastered previously with the exception of twenty-seven works plus fourteen songs (involving eight CDs in total) which have been newly remastered for this collection in 192 kHz/24-bit from the original analogue tapes by audio engineering company Studio Art & Son, Annecy. All these new remasters are it seems appearing on CD for the first time. I do not have the original recordings on vinyl to make a direct comparison with these new remasters, but I am delighted by the overall sound quality which is first class - extremely clear and well-balanced.
Previn spent eleven years as principal conductor of the LSO, a talented group of players who it seems were for some time unsure and circumspect about all the Hollywood glitz, pizzazz and schmaltz that inevitably followed Previn around in the media, often in the gossip columns. In retrospect, this period with the LSO cemented his reputation as a serious artist in the world of classical music. Not surprisingly, Previn’s substantial tenure with the LSO was extremely productive in the recording studio and gets the lion’s share of this collection with sixty-two of the ninety-six CDs. Drawing on his considerable experience gained early in the recording studios, Previn conducting was of a consistently high quality. Of course, there is also the body of works Previn and the LSO recorded for other labels. In this Warner collection, a number of Previn’s LSO recordings stand out and some have won awards, including a Grammy for Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast (rec. 1972) with John Shirley-Quirk and the London Symphony Chorus in the presence of the composer. Another Grammy was awarded for Rachmaninov’s The Bells (rec. 1975) also with the London Symphony Chorus. Other prizes include Gramophone awards in 1978 for the recording of Chausson and Duparc vocal works with Dame Janet Baker an album quickly followed the next year by Debussy’s Images and Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune. A true highlight from 1971 has Previn at the piano, conducting the LSO in Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and the Piano Concerto in F major with the orchestral showpiece An American in Paris, all striking recordings that I doubt have been bettered.
Rightly singled out for special praise in the Warner promotional notes is the recording of Tchaikovsky’s complete ballet The Nutcracker (rec. 1972) with Previn successfully drawing in the listener to this glorious soundworld. He clearly had a special affinity for ballet music and his other complete ballet scores namely Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty (rec. 1974) and Swan Lake (rec. 1976) together with Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet (rec. 1973) and Cinderella (rec. 1983) and also Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé (rec. 1981) are all worthy of praise. A personal favourite is the CD with soloist Nigel Kennedy in his prime playing both of Walton’s Violin and Viola Concertos. In sincere and strongly communicative performances Previn is conducting the RPO recorded in 1987 at Abbey Road. Amongst the highlights I am drawn to Previn’s Rachmaninov output particularly The Isle of the Dead and Symphonic Dances (rec. 1974), the already mentioned The Bells (rec. 1975) and the three Symphonies (rec. 1973-76) all works played with assurance with Previn with his players suitably impassioned and producing plenty of colour. On this release there are also six Previn recordings of Shostakovich Symphoniesnos. Four, Five, Six, Eight, Ten and Thirteen ‘Babi Yar’ which I find slightly uneven in quality when compared with the fierce competition provided by a number of rival accounts.
Contained here are nine CDs that Previn recorded with the RPO including the 1986 recording of The Nutcracker. This is another splendid performance but the earlier account from 1972 with the LSO is something special. With the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra there are seven CDs including the Mahler Symphony No. 4 (rec. 1978) although I find several rival recordings in the catalogue more compelling. Both the Sibelius Symphony No. 2 (rec. 1977) and the Violin Concerto (rec. 1979) with Perlman as soloist are interesting performances that I will certainly play again. Of the remaining orchestras, there is a pair of CDs with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra comprising of the Shostakovich Symphony No. 4 and a standout performance of the Symphony No. 5 (both rec. 1977). There is a single CD each with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus playing the Berlioz Requiem (rec. 1980) and Philadelphia Orchestra with the Richard Strauss Alpine Symphony (rec. 1983). Here the fruitful collaboration between Previn and the Vienna Philharmonic is represented by a single Richard Strauss CD. Recorded in 1980 at the Musikverein the playing of the tone poems Don Juan, Till Eulenspiegels Iustige Streiche and Tod und Verklärung produces a convincing emotional atmosphere with a rich Straussian sound.
Of the numerous soloists on the collection Previn’s friend, the renowned violinist Itzhak Perlman, is the most prominent and plays on eight of the CDs. Of Perlman’s recordings, I especially enjoy his glorious 1972 accounts of the Violin Concertos from Mendelssohn and Bruch (Concerto No. 1). My pick of the soloists represented here are Kyung Wha Chung, Nigel Kennedy, Radu Lupu and Paul Tortelier. Previn also benefits from an exceptional roster of singers too, notably Sir Thomas Allen, Elly Ameling, Dame Janet Baker, Kathleen Battle, Margaret Price and Samuel Ramey.
The presentation standard of The Warner Edition set is splendid, and the card box with a removable top lid seems fairly tough. The bulk of these recordings is with the LSO and the most frequently used studio locations are the Kingsway Hall and Abbey Road. The earliest recording date being 1971, all the recordings are stereo apart from four short mono rehearsal tracks on CDs 1 and 2. Across the set, the recording quality is consistently satisfying, undoubtedly benefiting from having regularly established partnerships of studio sound engineers for example Christopher Bishop with Christopher Parker, and Suvi Raj Grubb with Christopher Parker. A pleasing touch is the use of the original album cover artwork on all the card CD sleeves. The accompanying booklet contains an essay about Previn written by Jon Tolansky. There is a listing of each composer in alphabetical order followed by the works recorded. In addition, there are some session photographs.
Celebrating a substantial portion of André Previn’s voluminous recording legacy, The Warner Edition is a rewarding release. There are many favourite Previn recordings to be revisited and many new discoveries to be made in this ninety-six CD set.
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.