The warmth of the reception accorded André Previn confirmed his stature in the eyes of an audience taking in those for whom he is a 'grand old man' (he was born in 1929) to those who recalled his appearance on The Morecambe and Wise Show (40 years ago this year) as if it were only yesterday. Yet however frail he seemed as he took to the platform and seated himself on the podium, there could be no doubt that Previn was as in control of proceedings as he has ever been; and in a programme that played to his interpretative strengths as surely as it enabled him to reassess long-time favourites.
Strauss tone-poems have been central to Previn's latter-day appearances with the London Symphony Orchestra and one sensed that Don Quixote (1897), in its varied and audacious journey towards an acceptance tempered by experience, must hold especial appeal. True the Introduction was a little slow in accruing intensity, its complex agglomeration of motifs and textures less than ideally delineated, though the expectation as Tim Hugh made his impetuous entry was palpable. Equally at home as soloist or section leader, Hugh is an ideal exponent in that he can front the orchestra as surely as he can withdraw into it. Moreover, his handling of those recitative-like transitions between the earlier Variations ensured a seamlessness that made the overall work feel as symphonic as it was Fantastic – and to which the lengthy coda fulfilled its role as one of Strauss's most understated as well as affecting apotheoses. For his part (and not forgetting the vital contributions of violist Edward Vanderspar or Leader Roman Simovic), Previn evidently relished the music's capricious flights of fancy without risk of crassness or vulgarity. Tonally this is as forward-looking as any of Strauss's orchestral scores, an aspect that was underlined as purposefully as was the subtle interplay of diatonic and modal elements in Vaughan Williams's Fifth Symphony (1943). Not that one needed to make a link between these works, but their premise of innovation fused with consolidation would seem as good as any for pairing them.
The latter piece has always been a Previn speciality, and though other conductors have brought more tension to the opening movement’s development or greater ecstasy to the climactic restatement of its second theme, few have so sustained its fluid momentum over a virtually continuous pulse. Hardly a 'presto' as indicated, the scherzo instead became a speculative intermezzo as evocative or ominous as the music itself warranted. The ‘Romanza’ was as eloquent as it has ever been (some readers will recall a spellbinding account of this movement with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra as part of a TV series devoted to the Symphony in the mid-1980s) and, again, if others have found more anguish in its dramatic middle section (that most closely allied with the work's genesis in the then-unfinished 'morality' “The Pilgrim's Progress”), not many have brought so tangible a repose to its climax or so rapt a serenity to its conclusion. Nor was the final ‘Passacaglia’ other than an apt culmination, not least in the way that Previn found an ideal accommodation between its relatively extrovert earlier stages and the strife-ridden passage that follows (hints of Ravel at its climax deftly brought out). Nor did Previn succumb to the temptation of slowing unduly for the coda: the merging of the movement's main theme with the spirit of the work's opening was conveyed with unerring poise. A fitting end to a fine performance – and to a concert which reminded that, in his repertoire of choice, Previn lacks nothing in discreet insight.
Prior to the concert, musicians from the Guildhall School of Music & Drama played works by the LSO’s two composers in what was an attractive and appropriate entrée
. Perhaps the Sextet to Strauss's last opera “Capriccio” (1942) was a shade too impulsive, but the music's intricate polyphonic interplay and its fondly regretful ambience were finely conveyed. Vaughan Williams's Piano Quintet (1903) is the most imposing among several formative chamber pieces that the composer repudiated, only to see the light of day again at the turn of the present century. And, whatever its unevenness of inspiration, this is an imposing work to which the performers did full justice: whether in the impetuousness of the Allegro, the passion emerging out of and then back into the prevailing calm of the Andante, or the intriguing yet satisfying semi
-variations that comprise the closing 'Fantasia'.