Previn and Mutter

Born in Berlin in 1929, André Previn is one of the most complete musicians of our time. Equally at home in the concert hall, opera house, Broadway theater and jazz club, he has been composing and performing since childhood: his truly is a life in music. Having fled Nazism and emigrated with his family to Los Angeles in 1939, Previn quickly revealed the facility for music in all its styles that would make him an Oscar-winning composer and partner with the likes of Dinah Shore and Doris Day. Conducting studies with Pierre Monteux paved the way for Previn’s appointment in 1967 as chief conductor of the orchestra Monteux had briefly led, the LSO: he became its longest-serving chief conductor to date, and his continuing appearances with the orchestra are still events to remember.

His Violin Concerto amounts to a self-portrait, composed at the turn of the millennium for Anne-Sophie Mutter, to whom he was married between 2002 and 2006. The couple gave the premiere with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in March 2002 and by rights it should be known as his first such work, since Previn composed a Second Violin Concerto for Mutter in 2010.

The opening eases the listener into a space of nostalgic reflection, proceeding in rhapsodic stanzas with a finely judged balance between lush melody and harmony of Expressionist angst across a landscape of cinematic breadth. Written for the expressive personality as well as technical accomplishment of Mutter, there is as much Berg in the solo writing as there is Korngold in the opulent accompaniment.

The second movement opens with a cadenza, still reflective rather than overtly virtuosic in character, forming a bridge towards what the composer calls the ‘barren’ terrain of a slow movement that gropes for tonal certainty amid sliding lower strings. More Bergian arpeggios on flute and solo violin strive towards and find a great soaring bird of a melody, but it does not stay aloft for long. A central, furious outburst of Soviet-style moto perpetuo from the soloist is answered by the orchestra’s percussion section before the icy calm of the opening returns.

The variation-finale is the longest, most eventful movement, perhaps modeled on the Concerto of William Walton, for whose music Previn has long shown a special sympathy in concert and on record. ‘In November 1999,’ Previn once recalled in characteristically self-deprecating fashion, ‘I called my manager from a train in Germany to wish him happy birthday, and he told me “from a train in Germany” would make a great title for a piece. It’s now the third movement of the concerto, a set of variations on a German children’s song I knew as a kid, “Wenn ich voglein war” (“If I were a bird, I would fly to you…”).’

Thus memories of childhood, and of pre-war Germany, pass before us like stations on the journey, stopping now and then at a Straussian transformation of melody into harmony before moving on, without – and this was not to be expected from a concerto within the Romantic tradition – ever reaching more than a provisional destination (Previn admits as much with an epigraph to the movement from T.S. Eliot’s Little Gidding).

  • André Previn, Tully Potter Collection
  • André Previn, Tully Potter Collection

It is in the finale that the soloist really comes into her own, commanding center stage throughout and leading the orchestra into a merry, not to say frantic dance halfway through. A variation of trills seems to promise sweet resolution before solo wind and brass gaze wistfully over the Atlantic towards a different kind of home, and the concerto dissolves into uneasy silence.

Peter Quantrill