Magazine article Gramophone

Andre Previn: David Gutman Pays Tribute to the German-Born American Polymath Whose Career Has Embraced the Lowbrow, the Highbrow and Everything in Between

Magazine article Gramophone

Andre Previn: David Gutman Pays Tribute to the German-Born American Polymath Whose Career Has Embraced the Lowbrow, the Highbrow and Everything in Between

Article excerpt

Nonchalant collegiality has cloaked Andre Previn's incredible breadth of talent. 'Pierre Monteux used to say to me that it is very simple, in a position of authority, to make an orchestra play,' said Previn, recalling his mentor's advice, 'but much harder to make them want to play. I have never forgotten that.' Still, the case for the prosecution is easily made. Previn as cultural communicator has been no revolutionary. Nor was he a podium wizard like Carlos Kleiber, his own, inelegant stick technique applied to an infinitely wider if essentially peripheral repertoire. Or so it was said. He was a dazzlingly quick learner whose musical approach --never histrionic, aware (surely) that what is left unsaid often touches us the most--could be traduced as glossy or half-hearted. Rejecting specialisation can mean spreading oneself too thin, though few now question the acclaim accorded to Leonard Bernstein. Snubbing both modernism and period practice proved unfashionable too. And for this self-deprecating showman, prolonging a silence at the end of a work or milking applause has always been anathema.

Previn's British celebrity derives partly from his years as a primetime TV personality. Andre Previn's Music Night and his other undemanding BBC programme strands look positively Reithian alongside today's reality TV. The conductor and his beloved LSO famously secured their place in light entertainment history on the Morecambe and Wise Show in 1971; and in the 1972 Christmas special he appeared appropriately attired as a 'conductor' on a Routemaster bus. We no longer have bus conductors --but whatever happened to family-friendly terrestrial TV coverage of Western art music?

Despite diminished mobility and occasional grouchiness, Previn has kept going. What may prove his final LSO appearance in June 2015 included an imperfect account of Rachmaninov's Second Symphony, music he made a repertoire staple. He began, though, with a gag: laboriously installed on the rostrum in his special chair, the frail veteran swivelled round, announcing succinctly, 'He's up!'

With a legacy so diverse, even the most ardent fan is unlikely to encounter more than a taster. A nimble classical pianist with a pearly, slightly shallow tone once associated with the West Coast jazz scene, Previn retained his facility into old age. His film music career is usually discussed in terms of Oscar-winning musicals, though his admiration for Britten and Walton (later reciprocated) is more obvious in original scores for serious dramas like Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) and Elmer Gantry (1960). Later, the Tom Stoppard collaboration Every Good Boy Deserves Favour (RCA, 7/78), a 'play for actors and orchestra' first performed in 1977, called for pastiche Shostakovich. Previn's soft-focus eclecticism is best transmuted in the set-piece arias of the opera A Streetcar Named Desire (DG, 4/99).

'Classical' conducting was the core activity for half a century. Less familiar scores were easily read, and late Romantics and conservative moderns suited best of all. As with Eugene Ormandy, his commercial background made him a superb accompanist. Recording partners have included Vladimir Ashkenazy, Dame Janet Baker, Barbara Bonney, Kyung Wha Chung, Jean-Philippe Collard, Renee Fleming, Radu Lupu, Itzhak Perlman, Gil Shaham and Anne-Sophie Mutter, who was briefly his (fifth) wife. …

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