April 2001 Film Music CD Reviews

Film Music Editor: Ian Lace
Founder Len Mullenger

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DVD Review

André PREVIN The Kindness of Strangers - A Portrait by Tony Palmer
ARTHAUS Musik DVD 100 150 [90 mins]
£18.99  AmazonUK  AmazonUS

"The kindness of strangers" is quoted from Blanche Dubois's final speech as she is led away to the asylum after her brutal rape, by her brother-in-law, Stanley Kowalsky, has unhinged her mind in Tennessee Wiliams's A Streetcar Named Desire. The rehearsals and opening night of André Previn's opera, A Streetcar Named Desire form the main linking elements in Tony Palmer's absorbing portrait of the American conductor, composer and pianist.

Filmed in the last years of the last decade, in Germany, Japan and America, the portrait shows Previn as jazz pianist at New York's Blue Note Club, as chamber musician joining the Emmerson Quartet to play Brahms's Piano Quintet op. 34; as orchestral conductor, rehearsing the WDR Symphony Orchestra in Ravel's Mother Goose Suite; and as teacher guiding student conductors at Tanglewood. He is also seen accompanying Kiri Te Kanawa as she sings Marietta's Aria from Korngold's Die Tote Stadt.

The film includes outline biographical details. His early life in Berlin and Paris is covered before his family eventually settled in America. He remembers being influenced at an early age by the incredibly ornamented pop arrangements of Art Tatum.

His Hollywood career as arranger composer and conductor is covered in some depth. He remembers that the first film he scored, at 17, was an Esther Williams aquatic musical, On an Island with You (MGM - 1948). His first credited score was The Sun Comes Up one of the Lassie sagas, a film so obscure it seems to have eluded Halliwell! His film music has won him four Academy Awards (Gigi; Porgy and Bess; Irma la Douce; and My Fair Lady) and he has scored such outstanding films as: Bad Day at Black Rock; Elmer Gantry; and Thoroughly Modern Millie (both Academy Award nominated).

He rues his success in Hollywood and bemoans the fact when speaking before the premier of his opera, A Streetcar Named Desire, forecasting that inevitably some critics would refer to his Hollywood persona, suggesting that the opera would be just glorified film music.

The biographical data also includes details of his four marriages (most famously to Mia Farrow). There is a newspaper clipping that refers to that famous partnership with comedians Morecambe and Wise but there is far too little about Previn's illustrious career as conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra and his championship of British music particularly that of Walton and Vaughan Williams. Previn's 1960s recordings in England are rightly treasured - many think that his blistering reading of Walton's First Symphony has never been eclipsed, for instance; and who could forget his brilliant 1973 recording of the original version of Rachmaninov's Second Symphony? Then there were his much praised recordings of all the Vaughan Williams symphonies. And here I must voice another grouse. Not credited, is his (?) performance of Vaughan Williams 5th Symphony, a work of great mystical beauty which is used very incongruously to underscore the scenes of the planning and rehearsals of Previn's opera A Streetcar Named Desire - a harrowing and seedy story even if has redeeming features and universal truths

In entertaining yet revealing asides, Previn talks about himself. He tells of his busy work schedule that takes him all over the world. He ruefully observes that people think that a conductor's life "is a succession of limousines and mistresses; the truth of it is never being in a place long enough to have your laundry done…I am so travelled I don't know where I'm supposed to be from."

All in all, an entertaining and informative portrait of a major versatile talent - Sir André Previn. (He was knighted in 1996).

Ian Lace

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