Mutter & Previn

Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune
Violin Concerto ‘Anne-Sophie’
Symphony No.5 in B flat, Op.100

Anne-Sophie Mutter (violin)

Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra
André Previn

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 30 August, 2004
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Odd when you think of it: André Previn has not appeared at the Proms since a 1987 concert with the Royal Philharmonic; then its back to 1974 – the era of “Music Night” and that (in)famous Morecambe and Wise sketch – for his last appearance here with the LSO. Here he was in charge of the Oslo Philharmonic; he’s been its Music Director since 2002, in a programme typical in every respect.

Performances of Debussy’s Prélude these days tend either towards the overly expressive or the pristinely analytical: Previn’s patient but never sluggish approach brought out a chaste sensuousness that got to the heart of the matter with a minimum of effort. Whether or not the Oslo Philharmonic has much of a Debussy tradition, it sounded captivated by the music and played accordingly.

‘Captivating’ is a term one would like to have applied to Previn’s Violin Concerto (2001) and, indeed, his customary transatlantic Romanticism has seldom been so unabashed as here. But the alternation of arioso and scherzo in the Moderato merely ghosted a sonata structure (Walton’s concerto being the likely model), and though its successor brought intriguing crosscurrents of accompanied cadenza, slow movement and intermezzo, its wan ideas and listless switching between anxiety and repose was unsatisfying as the fulcrum on which the formal weight of the concerto is presumably meant to turn.

The finale is subtitled “From a train in Germany” and evoked by such a journey Previn undertook in 1997 and inspired by memories of his childhood years in that country. The movement is a loose sequence of variations on the rhapsodic theme heard at the outset. Nostalgia apart, however, there seems to be precious little point to its unfolding – except that, even more than the previous two movements, it gives full reign to the persona of Anne-Sophie Mutter; a consummate professional by any standards – but whose blandly lyrical sheen and calculated fast vibrato give increasingly less pleasure as the years go on. But then, technique and surface affection aside, there was little positive input a soloist could really have in this expertly crafted but fatally uneventful work: 38 minutes simply left blank in the memory.

Should he ever essay a symphony, Previn might profitably draw on the suspense and oblique approach to age-old problems that Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony has in abundance. His association with the work goes back over the greater part of his conducting career, his Los Angeles Philharmonic remake being among the finest on record. In truth, the Oslo Philharmonic played capably but far from spectacularly this evening, lacking the weight of tone that the opening Andante – in particular – needs to project its cumulative impact, though Previn’s tempos were unexceptionally right here as throughout the work.

He found balletic grace amid the brittle angularity of the scherzo – refreshing to hear those final bars conducted ‘in rhythm’ with those preceding them, rather than rushed through for effect – while the soulful Adagio built to a tellingly ominous climax and concluded with a wistful tenderness that was judged to a nicety. As before, Previn doesn’t ‘egg on’ the ambivalent humour of the finale, nor does he over-stress the manic slapstick of its coda. The outcome is a movement fairly shot-through with ambiguous impulses while retaining an underlying stability that makes its apostrophising of “the greatness of the human spirit” plausible in more than just narrowly ideological terms.

Interpretatively, then, Previn still has much to say about the music that has long inspired him – and an orchestra which, if not quite in the front rank, responds to his precise, undemonstrative gestures with alacrity. No encore was forthcoming: Previn looked somewhat nonplussed at the thought of providing one, but the warmth of the response confirmed that, in an altogether more strident age than the one in which he enjoyed ‘superstar’ status, his presence still draws affection and respect.

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