André Previn turns 80 in April, a milestone that will be observed at Carnegie Hall with four concerts this spring, in which Previn will be featured as conductor and even pianist. On Saturday night the National Symphony Orchestra had its own celebration, with Previn on the podium in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall conducting the Washington premiere of his own Concerto for Violin and Double-Bass. It featured the soloists who premiered the work, with the Boston Symphony Orchesta in 2007, Previn's former wife Anne-Sophie Mutter and a young double-bassist named Roman Patkoló.
Previn, "Anne-Sophie" Concerto, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Boston Symphony Orchestra
The work had many of the qualities that mostly please in Previn's successful pieces, like his opera A Streetcar Named Desire: some tuneful melodies, catchy and bouncy rhythmic vitality, and a sure-handed orchestrational expertise. With chameleon-like ease, Previn channeled some Shostakovich bite here, some Bernstein-ish or Gershwinic jazziness there, John Williams-style film score soaring trumpet and violin lines in another place, and Stravinsky-esque rhythmic jabs in another. The playing was assured and sensitive, especially the striking (amplified) double-bass cadenza by Patkoló at the end of the third movement, but there was nothing to hold one's attention beyond the moment it was being heard.
Mutter impressed most in her appearance on the first half, as soloist in Mozart's third violin concerto (G major, K. 216). It was not so much the Mozart, where her sometimes obtrusive vibrato created a not-so-clean sound, nice when it feels like a half-suppressed rawness behind the tone but here it was often too bloodthirsty. The exception was in the second movement, where especially in the middle section she held a breathless, sustained sound strictly sotto voce while Previn sat insistently on the orchestra underneath her. Not coincidentally, it was in the first-movement cadenza, not by Mozart but by the Hungarian-American violinist Sam Franko, where Mutter's full-blooded, brash sound was stylistically appropriate and very exciting to hear.
For all that Franko was known for unearthing rarely heard scores of old music, including Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante, which he played in New York with Maud Powell, many modern cadenzas go the same way as other musical ideas that prevailed at the time of their composition. Jens was not really happy with Mutter's Mozart concerto set a couple years ago, on which she played the Franko cadenzas in the third concerto, and my opinion was about the same. Two other recent complete sets were better to my ears -- Christian Tetzlaff with the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie and Leonidas Kavakos with Camerata Salzburg -- and both soloists played their own cadenzas. Who knows what they will sound like in 50 years?
The rest of the program had the same contradictions. Previn, seated on a stool as he was for almost all of the concert, presided over a performance of Haydn's "London" symphony (D major, no. 104) that could have been made in the 1970s, with a Romantic milking of the opening Adagio, gentle tempi especially in the overly stately menuet, and a fairly string-heavy sound. That being said, Previn took great care to help the musicians make delicate shapes in the second movement, while sacrificing a propulsive sense of beat. After the Previn concerto ended at almost the two-hour mark, Richard Strauss's suite from Der Rosenkavalier seemed like overkill, but it turned out to be the high point of the evening. Although Previn looked so terribly frail, hobbling to the podium and needing assistance to step down from it, his presence seemed to energize the NSO into some of their most vibrant, confident (if not flawless) playing heard in some time. The acting principal oboe's solos erased the memory of the often sour playing of the first half, and the nostalgia there for the wallowing in was misty-eyed rather than weepy. Perhaps this was the prism through which Previn saw the Haydn.
Anne Midgette, For Previn's 80th, a Not-So-Robust Celebration (Washington Post, February 2)
Iván Fischer will conduct this week's concerts by the National Symphony Orchestra, which will combine Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra and Dvořák's seventh symphony (February 5 to 7).
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