MUSIC / Telling tales from Hollywood: Edward Seckerson on Andre Previn and the London Symphony Orchestra

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The Independent Culture
hat really happened to Erich Korngold? At 17 he was the toast of Vienna, 'the new Mozart', the natural successor to Strauss and Mahler. Some say that he peaked too soon, others that the Nazis were entirely to blame, that his creativity died on the Hollywood backlots when he started buckling the swash for the likes of Errol Flynn. But that's to undermine, even denigrate some of the finest work ever to grace a movie soundtrack. Korngold was so much more than just a jobbing refugee in Hollywood; he was a pioneer. Out of necessity came a new direction; and out of the movies came works like the Violin Concerto. Perhaps this was the music he really wanted to write.

London has enjoyed two performances of the concerto in recent weeks. Gil Shaham gave them both. On Sunday at the Barbican, Andre Previn was at his side - a timely reminder that Hollywood doesn't necessarily devour great musicians, it can even nourish them. Previn saw Hollywood and lived; like Korngold, he managed to transcend the 'Do you want it good or do you want it Tuesday?' mentality. There's a lot of Hollywood in Korngold's concerto. According to the cynics, more 'Korn' than 'gold', perhaps. But this composer knew the worth of his themes (borrowed from no less than four of his movie scores) and how best to make them shimmer. Vibraphone, a ripple of celesta, fragrant swishes of harp, dewy-eyed horn solos - these are the intoxicating orchestral colours of the piece, a throwback to the heady, otherworldly operas of his youth but viewed through the Hollywood looking-glass.

Gil Shaham plays the hell out of it. He has the ripeness and sweetness of tone but, more importantly, the whole-hearted manner for Korngold's grateful vocalise. He sang it here on an illicit sigh of pleasure, leaning into all that subversive and sexy chromaticism, savouring the protracted embellishments of the solo line. He almost had me believing that the rhapsodic, ever more hallucinatory second movement does in fact know where it's going. Previn and the LSO were intuitively the genuine article in support, fielding their best Star Wars sound for the finale's resolute climax.

Earlier there was Haydn - Symphony No 102 - a little flat at first, bigger-boned than Previn is no doubt accustomed to on his regular sojourns in Vienna with the Philharmonic, but not without its robust good humour - in particular those cheeky 'stuck-needle' string ostinatos in the finale. Perhaps the beefiness of tone was in anticipation of Strauss's Also sprach Zarathustra to come. A couple of weeks after its tremendous account of Strauss's Ein Heldenleben under Michael Tilson Thomas, the orchestra was once again displaying its prowess in this music. Strauss was under no illusions about what he had created here: Nietzsche's Ubermensch (Superman) emerges from a context more filmic than philosophical. Who can blame Stanley Kubrick for borrowing the opening C-major sunrise? It duly blazed here through a clutch of shining trumpets despite inadequate underpinning from a puny electronic organ.

In a work notoriously difficult to weld convincingly, Previn's great strength was his cogency, his authoritative sense of follow- through. The progress of Strauss's ubiquitous three-note theme was, for once, absolutely compelling. The best bits are still the most overtly hedonistic, with Strauss (and Previn) rejoicing in layer upon layer of densely harmonised string texture and the LSO horns engaged in spectacular pyrotechnics. One could even smile at the Disneyfication of Nietzsche in 'The Dance Song' - eminently kitsch, 'Made in Vienna' written all over it.

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