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André Previn The Warner Edition - Complete HMV and Teldec Recordings
rec. 1971-87 WARNER 9029506573 [96 CDs]
It must be the circumstances of time and reminiscence that makes some artist-led box sets appear shockingly ‘too soon’. That was my reaction, at least, to this 96-CD box set that harvests André Previn’s complete HMV and Teldec recordings, now under the umbrella of Warner. Previn died in 2019 and yet his lifetime, from his birth in pre-war Berlin in 1929 onwards, seems so bound up in so many areas of cultural endeavour, so much richness and incident, that it seems almost indecent that he is no longer with us. Somehow that laconic voice seems to endure as does the sure knowledge that only few so gifted as he could excel in composition, arrangement, pianism, presenting, jazz, conducting - and, of course, an almost Baroque fecundity as a parent.
I’ve dipped into many of these discs but can’t pretend to have listened to everything; in fact, my listening has been necessarily very selective and given that so many of these discs remain so admired I think that’s only right. One important question remains concerning the transfers. I was initially confused by the booklet credits which name Christophe Hénault of Art & Son Studio, Annecy, as responsible for the box set remastering. On the assumption that the 1971 LPs were being remastered I double-checked with the sleeves – the now obligatory miniaturised original LP sleeves – to find that 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
The three most prominent elements of his tenure with the LSO between 1968 and 1979 were Russian, French and British music, though of course some of these recordings are heard with other orchestras, such as the Pittsburgh Symphony.
His Tchaikovsky ballet score recordings were a little like some performances of Handel operas. The music simmers in the first act, at a lower voltage than Doráti, but takes flight as the ballets develop – The Nutcracker, of which there are two complete recordings, the earlier with the LSO and the later with the RPO (very little in it – perhaps the RPO is more vividly done), Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty. His Prokofiev is incisive and dramatic. No one is going to confuse the LSO chorus for a Russian one but Alexander Nevsky is still passionately played and paced whilst Symphonies 1, 5 and 7 attest to Previn’s control of symphonic syntax. Romeo and Juliet occupies two CDs and whilst the remastering is over 30 years old the playing is scintillating and Previn’s direction powerfully convincing. Peter and the Wolf is heard in two versions, the first narrated by his then-wife Mia Farrow in what sounds acoustically like the same studio and also by Hans-Joachim Kulenkampff in German in a dry studio presumably in Germany. The orchestral performance is the same, something that applies to Britten’s Young Person’s Guide, with two narrations both by Previn, one in English and the other in German. Well, it is a complete edition, after all. Rachmaninov 2? What can I add to the mountain of critical admiration for this glowing performance other than to note that it’s in the 2017 remastering and that Symphonies Nos 1 and 3 are here too as is a superbly sustained The Isle of the Dead. He tackled Shostakovich too – 4, 5 (probably the best of Previn’s Shostakovich and still sounding wonderful), 6, 8 (slightly soft grained in places), 10 and 13 (imposing) - with unquestionable authority and consistency.
Ravel suited Previn’s blend of clarity and warmth and remained a favourite composer. You only need listen to his deft pianism in Ravel’s Piano Trio to feel a kind of expressive kinship but it’s cemented by Daphnis et Chloé (though it lacks Munch’s sensuality) and L’enfant et les sortilèges. If La Mer isn’t as elemental as some it’s sumptuously recorded and for the ne plus ultra of that kind of thing lend an ear to his superb Turangalîla Symphony which is a real edge-of-the-seat performance. His Berlioz shows that Colin Davis wasn’t having it all his own way during this period – there are overtures, the Symphonie fantastique and a performance of the Requiem which, whilst not in the Munch-Boston class – but how many are? – is still effectively handled, chorally as much as orchestrally. Don’t overlook Jean-Philippe Collard’s cycle of the Saint-Saëns piano concertos – I always think of Collard as upholding the French piano tradition in the same way that his contemporary Augustin Dumay upholds the traditions of the Franco-Belgian violin school - or the really fine Poulenc disc with the Concerto in G minor and the Concert champêtre, with Simon Preston as organist in the former and harpsichordist in the latter.
No VW symphonic cycle here, of course, as it’s not in the Warner stable. But you will find Walton and numerous examples of Previn’s stature as the composer’s interpreter. It’s noticeable that he is steadier in tempo than the composer in Belshazzar’s Feast with Shirley-Quirk. This disc also contains a gripping reading of the Improvisations on an Impromptu of Benjamin Britten. The Second Symphony sounds mighty powerful in this new 2021 restoration. His classic – still the greatest – Symphony No.1 was made for RCA and isn’t here, but those who admire the Symphony No.2 recording tend to overlook that it also contains Constant Lambert’s sparkling The Rio Grande with Cristina Ortiz. Elgar’s Enigma Variations is in the box as is a VW Tallis Fantasia that sounds surprisingly sleepy and uninvolved. Turn instead to his Boult-rivalling Holst: The Planets (excellent) and an outstanding Egdon Heath along with The Perfect Fool ballet music but don’t forget that CD33 contains The Wandering Scholar in the performance directed by Steuart Bedford and Previn’s Holstian brace was tacked on as a kind of appendix.
All the Violin Concerto records with Itzhak Perlman are heard in the same transfers as can be found in the Perlman box; you wouldn’t really expect it otherwise (Mendelssohn, Bruch G minor, Sibelius, Korngold, Conus, Bartók No.2, Sinding Suite, Sarasate Zigeunerweisen). We’ve discussed Collard in Saint-Saëns. The Tchaikovsky and Liszt Concertos feature Horacio Gutiérrez and are only so-so. Not terrible, just not distinctive and with the piano over-prominent in the balance.
There are four Haydn symphonies that show real affinity, with vivacious rhythms and a proper appreciation of the symphonies’ wit. It’s an aspect of this period of his discography that tends to be forgotten. The two Beethoven symphonies are a real puzzle. It’s as if he felt the weight of tradition on his back when recording Nos. 5 and 7 - as if he felt that this was ‘how’ he should take them rather than having a conception of his own – and which as a result are somewhat ponderous and lack trenchancy. The Mozart piano concertos are with Boult and beautifully done; not as lingering or quite as subtle as, say, Ivan Moravec’s Mozart, but lighter in feel and more whimsical perhaps.
Previn the composer and Ragtimer
The two jazz albums, A Different Kind of Blues and It’s a Breeze were part of that vogue for classical players diggin’ the metier – Menuhin, for example, with Grappelli, with Alan Clare to help things along. Here there’s a stellar rhythm section, Shelly Manne, Jim Hall and Red Mitchell. The tunes are great, especially excursions to soul-bop, but Perlman lacks grit in that gorgeous tone of his and can’t swing; he simply reads. Easy Winners, the Scott Joplin album with Perlman, is present too. It’s fine to have a non-improvisor here, as these are written parts and it’s good to come back to this one, as I always underestimated it, thinking Perlman’s tone inappropriately sweet. Solace is played with particular delicacy and Previn keeps his inner Dick Hyman under wraps here.
His Mahler 4 is with the delectable Elly Ameling, one of its greatest vocal interpreters, so it’s a shame that Previn makes a real meal of the first movement, which counts it out of contention. It’s the only Mahler here. Like Bernstein he knew the Gershwin vernacular from both perspectives – the Classical and the Broadway – and he makes a brilliant showing, even though Earl Wild has his own very special brand of showmanship and panache in Rhapsody in Blue. Previn was a selective Brahmsian but the German Requiem invariably drew the best from him. This 1986 recording on Teldec with Margaret Price, Samuel Ramey and the RPO is top-drawer (and his later LSO Barbican reading in 2000 showed just how well and powerfully he conducted it). Elsewhere you can find Previn accompanying Janet Baker in a raft of Brahms songs and she also sings Chausson’s Poème de l’amour et de la mer. Previn’s Strauss with the Vienna Philharmonic is a very early EMI Digital release and sounds invigorating; the orchestra is not on autopilot, certainly not for a sparkling and seductive Don Juan. The Alpine Symphony saw him teamed with the Philadelphians in 1983. His Goldmark Rustic Wedding symphony was made in Pittsburgh in 1979 and is rather more expansive in places than the venerable Beecham LP but lovingly, consolingly done.
Primarily this box documents the LSO years but there are recordings with the Chicago Symphony,
English Chamber Orchestra, London Philharmonic, Philadelphia Orchestra, quite a few with the Pittsburgh Symphony, and the Royal Philharmonic and Vienna Philharmonic.
Listen to the first disc, the fascinating Ravi Shankar Sitar Concerto, a kind of prototype for John Mayer’s Indo-fusion experiments. Then listen to the previously unpublished rehearsals and hear Previn hammer out details with Gervase de Peyer as he deals with matters of phrasing and ensemble with Shankar. Listen to the very end and hear the taut four-letter word that would, one suspect, never dare to escape the stiff upper lip of Adrian Boult.
Disc 96 is a Previn documentary disc, with nine tracks lasting 78 minutes with spoken material by Jon Tolansky who has also written the bracing and warmly sympathetic booklet notes (in English, French, German) with its many black and white photographs. There are musical extracts and spoken recollections from a number of Previn’s LSO musicians about the various elements of his career. Tom Stoppard, with whom Previn so famously collaborated, is heard briefly too.
The box is sensibly organised and sturdy. The large majority of these performances are heard in standard extant CD transfers. There are some new and exceptionally fine remasterings and this is welcome, though not all this material, to be honest, is especially necessary. If you have a smattering of Previn’s recordings and have the funds, this is a box of consistent and often inspired, beautifully recorded music-making.
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.