LSO/Previn – 26 October

Debussy
Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune
Elgar
Cello Concerto in E minor, Op.85
Strauss
Symphonia domestica

Moray Welsh (cello)

London Symphony Orchestra
André Previn


Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 26 October, 2003
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

This was the second of what should have been a brace of André Previn programmes. In the event he and Anne-Sophie Mutter went down with a bug and cancelled last week’s first concert, which was taken over by Colin Davis and Maxim Vengerov. With Previn now recovered, we got the second instalment as originally billed. He arrived on the podium to a warm reception to underline the genuine affection in which he is held here in London. Amazingly, his first recordings with the LSO were made nearly 40 years ago.

The programme that Davis took over and this concert both opened with Debussy’s Faune, two very different performances from the same orchestra in a few days. Previn’s – salaciously billed in the programme as “Love in the afternoon” (making it sound like one of Eric Rohmer’s 1960s’ French movies) – was a quality affair with a fabulously played flute solo and almost equally distinguished playing from all the wind principals. In fact, it brought the best playing of the evening, reminding us of Previn’s love-affair with French music, the only very slight cavils being some over-emphatic first violins in the central section and overloud percussion at the close.

The soloist in the Elgar was Moray Welsh, who is the LSO’s co-principal cellist; good to see orchestral principals given the opportunity to play concertos (Janos Starker, one of the great interpreters of the Elgar, was one-time principal of the Chicago Symphony, so there are distinguished precedents). On this occasion, despite much that was fine, particularly the slow movement and ruminative epilogue – rapt and devoid of sentimentality – this was not the happiest of performances. During the first movement Welsh recovered from the sort of momentary lapse that can happen to anyone and unduly taxed in the stratospheric scherzo. The orchestral accompaniment sounded flat-footed and the finale prompted some unduly aggressive brass playing.

With Symphonia domestica we had a pendant to Previn’s excellent Strauss series last season. Domestica is Strauss’s dramatisation of the joys of family life, a wonderful but volatile piece with frequent alarms and excursions (baby’s bath, his wife’s anger); Strauss’s home-life was anything but uneventful. The symphony’s switches of mood and tempo are difficult to bring off successfully. Ideally it calls for a more interventionist conductor, a Reiner, Szell or Maazel, who is prepared to micro-manage the score’s copious detail. On this occasion Previn was too prepared to accept what he was given, and the overall result was rather generalised.

After the initial introduction to family members, a trumpet blooper notwithstanding, the symphony’s first part was allowed to get too slow too soon, the cradle song and subsequent bedroom scene becalmed before their time; slow this music may be but it also requires a degree of impulse. The riotous double fugue and grandiose peroration fared better, the orchestra (including the quartet of ad lib saxophones) playing with enthusiasm and panache. It was good to hear the piece again.

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