It is 41 years since André Previn first appeared with the London Symphony Orchestra, and in those four decades he has been both their Principal Conductor and now Conductor Laureate. His remarkable career has also included an extensive period in Hollywood as film composer and arranger, the composition of an opera (A Streetcar Named Desire) and many concert appearances as a pianist.
Previn is celebrating his 75th birthday by giving a series of concerts with the LSO demonstrating his wide-ranging musical talents, starting with this gala birthday concert. The programme consisted entirely of twentieth-century works, most of them written by Previn’s heroes as a composer – figures such as Ravel and Strauss who employ large forces to create an enormous palette of orchestral colours. Although now looking frail, Previn is still commanding as a conductor, and he drew only the finest sounds from an admiring LSO.
The concert started with Korngold’s suite from The Sea Hawk, a fitting tribute to Previn’s Hollywood days. The LSO’s brass clearly relished the opportunity to shine, and negotiated the tricky dotted rhythms of the ‘Main Title’ music with impressive dexterity. Then, as the second theme came in, the violins responded with a warm vibrato of a quality normally unheard outside of the Vienna and Berlin Philharmonics.
The meat of the first half of the concert was Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand with Jean-Yves Thibaudet as the excellent soloist. Thibaudet understands the poetry of this beautiful score, and rather than making a spectacle of the fact that the score is for only one hand he demonstrated its exquisite melodic contours. The orchestra responded well, bringing out the impressionistic aspect of the music.
Then we were treated to Previn’s 1997 work, Tango Song and Dance for Violin and Piano. The composer was the pianist, whilst his glamorous wife, Anne-Sophie Mutter, was the violin soloist. Previn was perhaps too understated an accompanist, though sympathetic; but his wife shone in this work, which was written for her. The ‘tango’ and ‘dance’ were especially evocative, if unchallenging, and the only disappointment was the sentimental and bland ‘song’.
After the interval, two undoubted masterpieces brought the performance into fifth gear. Strauss’ Four Last Songs reunited Previn with Renée Fleming, who starred as Blanche Dubois in his operatic version of Streetcar. This was a marvel from start to finish, with Fleming showing with what beauty of tone she can sing. Her performance was also arresting in the level of meaning she brought to the words, which are frequently given a back seat in these days of diminished Lied singing. The final two songs were especially moving, with the crescendo on the word ‘Seele’ in Beim Schlafengehen and the emphatically-delivered final lines of Im Abendrot the highlights of a deeply thoughtful rendition in general. Leader Gordon Nikolitch was outstanding in his solo in the former, and the piccolo trills magically evoked birdsong in the latter.
The finale to the evening was the second Daphnis et Chloë suite by Ravel. The LSO played their hearts out in a highly dedicated reading of the work, one which Previn has championed over the years. A strong ensemble feel made this an uplifting end to proceedings, and Previn was awarded a standing ovation at the end. If this concert was an indication of the level of musicianship of his celebratory concerts, there are clearly some interesting events to look forward to at the LSO over the coming fortnight.