LSO/Previn, Barbican, London

Is Mahler Previn's bag?

Review,Annette Morreau
Thursday 09 January 2014 05:37
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From now until November, the LSO at the Barbican are performing most of Mahler's symphonies in repeated performances with a galaxy of different conductors – from Maazel through Boulez and Michael Tilson Thomas to Mariss Jansons.

Thursday's concert of Mahler Four brought André Previn to the helm. Few Mahler symphonies need much additional music to fill a concert programme, but the fourth does. Juxtaposition is everything in programme building, and not many works stand easily before a Mahler symphony. Somewhat lucklessly, Leonard Bernstein's Serenade after Plato's 'Symposium' was the evening's opener.

Bernstein and Previn have much in common: American, Jewish, pianists, composers, conductors, communicators. If not a work by Previn himself, Bernstein would seem an obvious choice. The Serenade is essentially a violin concerto, and was written in 1953 for Isaac Stern. The Plato connection relates to a banquet "symposium" at which the topic of conversation for Socrates and colleagues was love. Bernstein names each of the five movements after a speaker, and, technically, he resorts to melodic evolution to relate the successive movements, but what it actually sounds like is a work reminiscent of Stravinsky and Prokofiev, with melodic, rhythmic and harmonic snatches that appear to have escaped their masters.

Bernstein's style is a worrying soup of popular, repetitive, filmic effects with vulgar touches of bells and mallet instruments. Only the fourth movement Adagio makes any real emotional claim. With a soloist as musical and sweet-toned as Anne-Sophie Mutter, this rarely performed work had its chance.

Whether it was the Bernstein effect, the opening movement of Mahler's Fourth felt bland. It began sluggishly, Previn over-emphasising the café-music schmaltz of the first violins while under-emphasising the threat of the sleigh-bells. With too narrow a dynamic range, little was made of Mahler's dramatic contrasts, the music performed dutifully but low on energy. The second movement saw a transformation: the horn section pulled things together, the principal horn almost making the movement his own, before Previn, too, awoke to bring Mahler's wayward harmonic language and grotesque colours to the fore. And in the hushed opening of the third movement, the transformation continued: the lower strings were simply miraculous.

In the final movement, in which incongruous innocence meets increasing threat, Felicity Lott bubbled angelically, skilfully placing those perilously high notes. Despite a long relationship, Previn's Mahler is not LSO Mahler. But is Mahler really Previn's bag?

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