Previn
Cello Sonata
Strauss
Eine alpensinfonie, Op.64

Tim Hugh (cello) & André Previn (piano)

London Symphony Orchestra
André Previn
Previn at 75; the LSO at 100. The LSO is self-renewing. André Previn, however, is greyer, shorter and plumper than he used to be – creaking painfully up and down the stairs to the platform. He is not renewable, alas. Let us celebrate his continuing presence.
The world did not turn for me while listening to his Cello Sonata. I suspect that Previn would have been surprised, even perplexed, had it done so. Its form is curious. The first movement seemed to be a one-movement sonata (quick, slow, quicker) – terse and tightly constructed, perhaps a little short. Then came the slow movement proper – leisurely, meditative, mood-laden, sonorous, with a not quite remarkable grave beauty. The work finished in great spirit if going nowhere in particular most vigorously.
Even so, my attention was held throughout. Tim Hugh demonstrated, unforgettably, that Previn had set out to exhibit the cello as an enthralling musical instrument. The sonata is essentially an exacting demonstration of the cello's capabilities, fascinatingly varied. I found Hugh mesmerising: his rich and gritty double stopping, his assured counterpoint, his agile and fearlessly-resounding pizzicato, the sober romanticism of lyrical passages, the vitality of his fervent scurrying (especially during the presto sections of the last movement). Previn held back just somewhat – playing nimbly, but allowing Hugh a much-deserved pride of place.
The Alpine Symphony was given a performance of great magnificence. The LSO's acclaim for Previn at the end was for a well-loved conductor, even more for a fellow musician capable of bringing out such a performance. The music itself is hardly a symphony. The 'programme' is a day in the life of a mountain: it undergoes dawn, daylight and dusk, various types of weather, and humans trying to scale its dangerous immensity. Strauss's inspiration – and the scale of it - derived from Gustav Mahler and Friedrich Nietzsche (especially his book “The Antichrist” – Strauss came near to giving his 'symphony' this name).
Three disparate men. They had something in common, though – “worship of eternal and glorious nature” (words from Nietzsche's diary). The opening section was awesome, depicting gloom and tension. Credit to Previn and the LSO for sustaining this mood for so long; Strauss a master colourist, skilfully using a palette of greys. Also, in this darkness, I sensed the quality of stone – the presence of the mountain, gradually looming higher and higher, wider and more massive, huge and solid. I glanced at Previn, this man in a light grey suit; I thought of the film of Richard Strauss conducting Till Eulenspiegel – absolutely imperturbable. There was passion in the music, but no histrionics in the conducting.
Why the comparison?
Richard Strauss interprets his own work supremely; the music is absolutely clear; it moves coherently. Strauss is not one of the world's great manipulators of rhythm, beat or tempo. He does not rival Mahler as a melodist, nor does his music fall naturally into the great arching phrases that Furtwängler found in Wagner. Run-of-the-mill-conductors tend to give up – and produce lush rambling eddies of sound that soon send me to sleep.
Previn has the key. The prime feature of his interpretation is Strauss's instrumental colour. True, most commentators refer to Strauss as a supreme colourist. But they do it as if by-the-by, not as a fundamental, integral component to his composing.
Previn's approach worked. Each change in instrumentation was crystalline and riveting. Where a theme was handed from woodwinds to brass, the character of the theme changed – its timbre, its volume, its quality, its message. Contrapuntal writing was made riveting.
Does any other composer do this? Two come to mind: Stravinsky, often but not always; Haydn – we are just beginning to realise how considerable an instrumental colourist he was.
As a point of reference, I reminded myself of the storm sequence in Beethoven's 'Pastoral' Symphony. It is marked – as storms on lower land levels are marked – by driving, rhythmic rain and drum rolls of thunder; there are significant changes in tempo, key and phrasing. Strauss's storm, high up the mountain, had none of these features. Mists and elemental forces encircle the mountain in great opaque swirls of powerful, impenetrable vagueness.
The musical experience was magnificent. The LSO was magnificent.

 

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