Previn
Violin Concerto “Anne-Sophie”
Bernstein *
Serenade after Plato’s “Symposium”
Anne-Sophie Mutter (violin)

Boston Symphony Orchestra
London Symphony Orchestra *
André Previn

Previn recorded October 2002 in Symphony Hall, Boston; Bernstein recorded July 2003 in Studio One, Abbey Road, London
CD No: DG 474 500-2
Duration: 71 minutes
Reviewed: November 2003
Put simply, André Previn’s concerto for Anne-Sophie Mutter is a thoroughly lovely work that is beautifully crafted and invites repeated listening. One can assume that this purportedly live performance (before the quietest audience ever!) is more or less definitive; it is certainly superbly recorded with a near-perfect balance between soloist and orchestra, every strand of Previn’s expert orchestration lucid and tangible.
Previn prefers not to write an explanatory note – the music should speak for itself, which it does, directly. It would be effrontery (and ignorant) to suggest that Previn hasn’t produced a score of total professionalism – yet … while the music is thoroughly likeable, there are some observations to make. Indubitably, without a written guide, Previn’s Concerto is about human emotions – relationships, the pain of growing old, nostalgia … Marc Mandel’s booklet note confirms this. On this level the piece is touching and identifiable, and, maybe, these are the work's’s strongest point in that it remembers those people and things important to Previn at a time when his memories and associations have particular poignancy for him.
This is a 40-minute piece; the three movements get longer in turn. The first is steeped in Korngold’s Violin Concerto – consciously, surely, even down to touches of orchestration. Add in some Barber-like yearning, Bartókian spice, Copland’s rhythmic guile and filmic sweep. The middle movement is of Shostakovichian loneliness, with abrupt outbursts, and a contrasting Prokofiev-like scherzo (and, I wonder, a quotation from Beethoven's 5th given by the horn at 2’43”?). The final movement, inscribed “from a train in Germany”, is a set of deftly imagined variations on a German children’s song. Following some inventive quick-changes – Berg and Malcolm Arnold allusions, a bit waltzy, a little schmaltzy – and as a traditional ending seems to loom, Previn cuts away to a long, lyrical and heartfelt coda before fading away.
This is music that will be despised in some quarters, hung out to dry for its eclecticism – and maybe it is too diverse (it's certainly too long) and not as inventive as, say, Previn’s Diversions (also on DG – 471 028-2). But it touches the heart, brings sensory pleasure, and does so without questioning Previn’s integrity. Mutter is outstanding in the tailor-made solo part, so too the Boston Symphony, sounding like the great American orchestra that it is – Previn suggested a concerto for Mutter when commissioned by the BSO, which no doubt explains the numerous solos for members of the orchestra.
Leonard Bernstein’s five-movement Serenade has done well on record – three under the composer (with Stern, Francescatti and Kremer), two from Slatkin (McDuffie and Dicterow) and two from Zinman (Bell and Hahn). It’s a great work – along with the first two symphonies and Songfest, it represents Bernstein at his concert-hall best. Scored for solo violin, strings, harp and percussion, such instrumentation suggests Bartók, yet it seems closer to Prokofiev in other respects. Certainly there’s a European basis – overt Americanisms not especially present, until the extended finale with its intense introduction, ’bluegrass’ element and nightclub bass.
I’m not sure that Mutter is entirely happy here – for all that she plays ’well’ and with concentration. She’s not always fully alive to the work’s wistful qualities or its aphorisms. The recording is variable too – sometimes Mutter seems too close, then rather distant. The orchestra also appears too recessed, with detail opaque or unfocussed. Previn, of course, fully appreciates Bernstein’s curlicues and paradigms.

 

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