Classical Review: Mr Preview celebrates in style

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The Independent Culture
YOU STILL half-expect to see Andre Previn emerge as he will surely be remembered: the Beatles-style haircut, the trendy polo-neck dress-shirt, a pop celebrity in classical music. Mr Preview, as Eric Morecambe so memorably dubbed him. What an extraordinary era that was.

But Andre Previn, senior citizen, the London Symphony Orchestra's Conductor Laureate, will have many good reasons for enjoying the age he now is. Two of them were on the bill of fare for this 70th birthday concert. They were English, naturally. They were old favourites, old affairs still ongoing, his constant travelling companions.

The love that Previn has always expressed for Vaughan Williams's Fifth Symphony is self-evident now in his ability to chart its pilgrim's progress without seeming to do so. Where his famous London Symphony Orchestra recording urged us, implored us, to share in the experience, to journey with him to that particular vantage point where we might glimpse at last the "Celestial City", the feeling now is one of simple contentment in the deep and abiding consolation that Vaughan Williams's Bunyan-inspired work invokes.

The piece takes as long as it takes, and as long as it takes will never be quite long enough. The shadowy beasties that inhabit the mercurial scherzo are no longer as fleet-footed as they once were (Previn conveniently erases the composer's presto marking), but what was once a labour of love is now no labour at all.

The old Previn (as opposed to old Previn's) mannerisms remain. The arms still float almost involuntarily above the head to lend height to the sound, to lift those violins back up to where they belong. The left hand explicitly gestures a more intense vibrato, as if he himself were playing upon the entire section. And I don't think it's too fanciful to suggest that you hear his hard-earned authority in the sound now. The luminous string triads that stretched out before us at the start of the Romanza were both intangible and solid - a vision and a reality. The LSO strings don't produce that for just anybody.

And so to Britten's Spring Symphony and the delight that Previn's composerly ear so plainly takes in it. From the very start, as assorted percussion play out the death-rattle of winter, it's the quirkiness, the English eccentricity of the invention that grabs you. English poetry found its musical match in Benjamin Britten. He could be just as jolly, fey, coy, rumbustious - and profound. He could even be better.

Henry Vaughan's "Waters Above" is ennobled in Britten's setting, the fine rain of string sound in memorable juxtaposition to WH Auden's "Out on the Lawn", in which the strings are eliminated in favour of darkly nocturnal woodwind.

Roberta Alexander's plangent low notes sat well here alongside the mystical musings of alto flute and bass clarinet. Her colleagues - Dame Felicity Lott (looking very Aubrey Beardsley) and John Mark Ainsley - were fine, too.

And the LSO Chorus, as ever, excelled. That great moment in the finale (spring's last fling) where they beerily hurl out their giddy waltz while children's voices raucously counterpoint "Sumer is icumen in" felt like Previn's birthday present to himself. Younger than springtime? In spirit.