Opera + Classical Music Reviews

LSO: Previn/Mutter @ Barbican Hall, London

22 June 2008

This concert in the LSO’s Great Conductors series brought a welcome appearance by Andr Previn.

The orchestra’s Principal Conductor from 1968 to 1979, Previn has been its Conductor Laureate since 1992.

More recently he has been focusing his energies on composition and is working on a second opera, Brief Encounter, which is due to be premiered in 2009.

Anyone who remembers Previn’s television appearances from the 1970s (or has watched them on YouTube) might find it difficult to reconcile the image of the energetic young musician with the frail man of 78 who needs a little extra time to walk to the podium. Nevertheless, this concert demonstrated that Previn’s ability to inspire the orchestra remains undiminished and is at least the equal of Sir Colin Davis or Bernard Haitink, who have also conducted the LSO in recent weeks.

The programme began with Mozart’s Serenade No 13 in G major K525, better known as Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. With its main themes regularly appropriated for use in television adverts and other background music, it can be difficult to bring to life the freshness of Mozart’s inspiration. However, using a string orchestra of some 30 players with violins divided right and left, Previn delivered a bright, lucid performance with careful attention to dynamics. If the second movement Romanze lacked something in radiance, the overall result was still lively and compelling.

The addition of a flute, timpani, and pairs of horns, clarinets and trumpets to the strings readied the orchestra for Mozart’s Symphony No 39 in E flat. The intensity of the first movement’s slow opening suggested that this was going to be a memorable performance, and so it proved. Throughout the symphony, Previn’s careful attention to balance, clarity and phrasing allowed the symphony’s energy, grace and passion to shine through. The orchestral playing was sublime and altogether this was a deeply stirring interpretation of Mozart’s great symphony.

After the interval, Previn was joined by Anne-Sophie Mutter (his wife from 2002 to 2006) for a performance of Brahms’s Violin Concerto. The surging orchestral opening of the first movement seemed to herald another fine performance. However, Mutter’s playing throughout the first two movements involved a declamatory style with a fast, intense vibrato and significant use of rubato and portamento. The result gave Brahms’s concerto a nervous intensity which was arguably alien to the composer’s intentions. This was made all the more apparent by the refinement of the oboe and the other woodwinds in the Andante moderato. Even in the exuberant Allegro giocoso finale, Mutter seemed unable to resist distorting the shape of the main violin theme for expressive effect.

At the end of the concert, Mutter received much enthusiast applause, but to my mind Previn was the real star of the evening.

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