André Previn – An 80th Birthday Celebration – André Previn, conductor and piano

by | May 12, 2009 | Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

André Previn – An 80th Birthday Celebration – André Previn, conductor and piano/ London Symphony Orchestra/John Williams, guitar/ John Williams,  conductor/ Itzhak Perlman, violin/ Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra/ J.J. Johnson, trombone/ Red Mitchell, bass/ Frank Capp, drums/Terence Blanchard, trumpet/ Joe Henderson, tenor saxophone/Kenny Kirkland, piano/ Carl Allen, drums/ Sylvia McNair, soprano/ Yo-Yo Ma, cello – RCA Red Seal 88697 47250 2, 64:83 [Distr. by Sony-BMG] ****:

Who doesn’t love being in the tripartite rank of a “pianist-conductor-composer?” They are among our favorite creatures in the music industry, and for a good reason. Here, we readily think of Leonard Bernstein, who was never more himself than when he climbed into the high eighties, giving those memorable concerts. Then, we had legendaries like George Gershwin who took on a spiritual glow in his late years. They became angels in our musical World of Fame, leaving behind some of the fire from previous decades, only to see more and express more beyond the confines of time.

We often say that these elder musicians are like our “links to the past” – and truly they are. They reflect the former, in some cases, antiqued, teaching traditions, and with the works of the classical music repertoire, they are old intimate friends. Some of these individuals have an impact so great even our musical world today couldn’t hold enough of them. If André Previn’s life passed before your eyes, the view would be so diversified, zesty, and stuffed with music great like the Everest. Of all things, you’d need sunglasses.
André Previn is standing proud as ‘Beyond Category,’ when it was Duke Ellington who garnered this title to Previn’s role in music. Hard to believe, the Berlin-born child prodigy is now eighty years-old! Taking a quick backward look, Previn has achieved more than twice any individual’s lifetime that has come his way – including music directorships of six orchestras from Pittsburgh to Oslo; arranger and composer with four Oscars for film work in Hollywood and nominations to Grammy® and Emmy®; an admired jazz interpreter of the great American songbook – and the mileage to show this is only beginning to surface.
In celebration of his 80th birthday recently on April 26th, Anne-Sophie Mutter and Yuri Bashmet premiered Previn’s “Concerto for Violin, Viola, and Orchestra” at Carnegie Hall with celebratory remarks, while five days later, his operatic adaptation of the film “Brief Encounter” was premiered at the Houston Grand Opera to great success. A check on Google, you realize that Previn will also have three jazz gigs this year, not to mention the enticing concert where he doubled himself as piano soloist and conductor with the Philadelphia Orchestra earlier this spring. Then, on top of all that, Previn has the kind of engagement booking most full-time composers could only dream of. Taken together, they constitute only the tip of André Previn’s musical journey. No single album could convey the depth and breadth of this musician’s creativity. But, to commemorate the occasion, BMG’s latest André Previn – An 80th Birthday Celebration – may, at least, be the very least to survey Previn’s broad and remarkable contributions at the composing table, on the podium, or at the piano.

This album showcases the three major facets of André Previn – amongst his many, of course. First, we have Previn the pianist in the works of Ray Henderson, Kurt Weill, and George Gershwin’s ‘A Foggy Day,’ which demonstrates how Previn engages his fellow players with his music tricks as a jazz pianist. We also have a glimpse on Previn as an accompanist, providing a sympathetic platform for his vocal guest Sylvia McNair and cello partner Yo-Yo Ma represented in the work of his very own ‘Vocalise.’ Next, we have Previn the conductor – and surely this identification requires no formal introduction, given the vast array of musical landmark performances Previn hade on the podium, particularly during his glorious era with the London Symphony Orchestra (1968-79). For this reason, the album consists of only two compositions where we hear Previn with his baton. One fine example made available here with the English ensemble is that congenial portrayal of Aritosphanes’ caustic satire on Athenian judiciary that Vaughan-Williams wrote for the Cambridge University in 1909 that he wrote as his Overture to ‘The Wasps’ (For those interested to pursue this angle in Previn’s musicianship further, EMI Music has released a 10-CD set entitled The Great Recordings – The LSO Years 1971-1980).

But, perhaps the most impressive side of all profiles Previn has embarked to the musical community is his prolific talents as a composer. Admittedly, one never tires of Previn the composer. “Stimulating” and “fresh” are fitting vocabularies to describe his compositions in the cinema and in the concert call. It is befitting to hear how other musicians pay their tributes on Previn, as jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard rearranges Previn’s title track for the 1960 film “The Subterraneans” for trumpet, tenor saxophone, bass, piano and drums. While Previn’s re-work of Vincente Minnelli’s 1962 remake on the classic “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” with violinist Itzhak Perlman is nothing but soulful, it is really the CD première of his “Guitar Concerto” with John Williams as soloist that join the above three facets of Previn’s musical worlds together. The result of this three-movement work is a piece that begins in tempo Allegretto, and slows down to a lush Adagio but re-engages in a third movement Andante that is prescribed with the markings “slowly and reflectively.” Curiously enough, it is also in this eight minute movement that Previn suddenly channels back his score for “The Subterraneans” with a trio of electric guitar, electric bass and drums to create an entirely new composition. Inappropriate? No. But to draw on the artistry and virtuosity of his musicians? Certainly so. The orchestration of this traditional concerto has all the sonic prerequisites that draw upon lushness and grandness, but they equally offer the space and support to the relatively quiet classical guitar.

Previn is one of the few remaining musicians trained in the great pre-World War II German tradition. He was part of an era when he could phone up a recording company to say that this-and-such a piece was shaping up well, and had it recorded that very week. “Now, you have to plan two years in advance and get approval from everybody but the pope,” he once remarked. But surely, this BMG recording is one of those rare exceptions. You can chase André Previn all your life, and never catch up. BMG has done its best to capture the tip of the iceberg. Not a bad attempt at all, not bad indeed.

— Patrick P.L. Lam


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