By a strange coincidence I watched
Paul Harold’s 1964 Bette Davis thriller, Dead Ringer,
at the weekend, a film for which Previn composed the score. His new
Violin Concerto, of which this was the European premiere, is stylistically
very different – gone are the Hermannesque flashes, for example – and
yet comparisons are not exactly pointless between the Previn of almost
40 years ago and the Previn of today. He still has a remarkable ear
for what works, and his orchestration can be highly accomplished; indeed,
it is almost dramatic in the panorama of its cinemascopic design.
Ironically, this work replaced the
scheduled concerto – Korngold’s – and yet it owes a great deal to that
delicate, neo-Romantic masterpiece. This is most apparent in the solo
writing, which concentrates largely on spinning tonally rich sonorities
– and for which Anne-Sophie Mutter’s glorious sound is ideally suited.
However, despite this the impression the concerto leaves in the solo
writing is often a hackneyed one: so much of the phrasing is echt Shostakovich
or Bartok, and whilst technically the concerto is ‘difficult’ it is
not virtuosic in the most conventional sense of the word (only once,
for example, is the soloist required to bow and pizzicato simultaneously).
Harmonics are invariably stretched, although never to breaking point.
Written conventionally over three
movements the concerto is a long work – longer than either the Brahms
or the Beethoven concerti. The centrepiece is an exquisite middle movement
with a fast trio section framed between two slower outer sections. It
is musically quite barren, with a quite acidic sound to it, certainly
a contrast to the opening movement’s Korngoldian lushness. Beginning
with a long-breathed cadenza it develops an other-worldly, contemplative
manner and is highly effective in spinning a web of intricate sounds
and revolving passions. The final movement doesn’t quite match this
scale (indeed, it seemed over long).
Both Mutter and the LSO played with
fine dedication a concerto that deserves wider currency.
Much more compelling was a simply
fabulous performance of Rachmaninov’s E minor symphony. Recorded for
streaming on Andante.com it is regrettable that the LSO did not record
this performance for their own LSO Live label (instead, we shall get
a less than compelling Mahler 4). By any stretch of the imagination
the orchestral playing was peerless – from anthracite strings, through
to honeyed woodwind and burnished brass. And, whilst Previn’s interpretation
might lack the astringency of a Sanderling or a Mravinsky in this work
it does not lack shape or passion. In a symphony that works best taken
in a single broad arch Previn invests the symphony with a clear affinity,
even though his tempi have slowed and his rubato has somewhat intensified
– not least in the final movement coda which Previn shapes deliberately,
but to thrilling effect.
In a work which requires a conductor
and orchestra to convey emotions of passion and wildness, of pathos
and ferocity, of elegy and toughness it is difficult to imagine a better
performance than this one. With the LSO strings on stunning form (quite
overwhelming from the bass line, in fact) this was playing which had
everything. A magnificent clarinet solo from Andrew Marriner in
the intense adagio added to the sense that this was not so much
a meticulously prepared performance as one prepared from a love of the
work, and one in which conductor and orchestra were in rare unison.
With the Cleveland Orchestra due at the Barbican on Thursday for a short
two day residency their playing will really have to be exceptional to
match the sheer quality of the LSO on what was world-beating form.