LSO/Previn, Barbican Hall, London

Homage to Korngold in all but name

By Edward Seckerson
Thursday 12 December 2013 03:54
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When this André Previn/London Symphony Orchestra concert was first announced, Anne-Sophie Mutter was billed to play the Korngold Violin Concerto. In many respects she still did. The European premiere of Previn's own Violin Concerto proved so Korngold-like both in its themes and their orchestral dressing that it might, indeed, have been intended as a homage to that fellow-traveller on the difficult journey from Western Europe to Hollywood and back again.

Composers – particularly those from as eclectic a musical background as Previn's – invariably gravitate towards the music they themselves like. Whether consciously or unconsciously, a particular genre will prompt all kinds of associations. So the ebbing horns in the opening bars of Previn's concerto were at once suggestive of something lushly romantic – an exotic bloom taken from one clime and cultivated in another. The solo violin's response bore out a hothouse specimen, something so redolent of Korngold in melodic shape and attitude that the arrival of the vibraphone (a key element in the Korngold concerto) for the equally rapt second subject was not just expected but inevitable.

Previn played earnestly here on the tried and tested formula of "action and repose". There were nods to Bartok and Walton, and a more explicit one towards the Prokofiev Second Concerto in the strenuous duet between fiddle and bass drum. The quality of material was fine, the scoring well-heard as you'd expect, but where was Previn's own identity in all of this? Lost in admiration for those he has loved?

Even the extended slow movement, starting so interestingly with an austere, unaccompanied double-stopped monologue for the soloist answered by a trio of predatory bassoons, developed at length along slightly predictable lines. Everything comes from something, I know, but introduce the chill glint of celeste, plumb the lower depths of tolling tam-tam and harp and then take the violin sweetly, eerily into the stratosphere and what have you got? Shostakovich – the First Concerto. Mutter could hardly have been a more persuasive advocate, but even she could not disguise the second-hand nature of the piece, a piece which journeyed but ultimately failed to arrive. "A voyage round my forefathers", it might have been called.

A rather different kind of nostalgia pervaded the second half. Rachmaninov's Second Symphony, one of the great party-pieces of Previn's long and significant tenure with the LSO during the Seventies, returned like a hot flush of memories. As layer upon layer of string sound found succour in longing and elaborate horn descants ripened the harmonies to glorious excess, Previn seemed just to let the piece happen, to find its own space.

You could argue that a little more impulse here and there might have heightened the drama, intensified the development – Previn's tempo for the scherzo, for instance, always was a little square – and yet it was all so unforced, so second-nature: the swoon of the violins' portamento in the heavenly second subject of the scherzo; the limpid tone – at first so pale and interesting – of Andrew Marriner's exquisitely tender clarinet solo in the slow movement; the finale's big theme returning in a welter of string sound that would have caught even Rachmaninov's breath. In fact, had he known of the service that Previn and the LSO would do this piece over the years, he'd have dedicated it to them. It's still their piece, and always will be.

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