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CD Review

Leonard Bernstein / André Previn

Violin Concertos

  • Leonard Bernstein: Serenade after Plato's "Symposium" for Violin, String Orchestra, Harp & Percussion [31:19]
  • André Previn: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra [39:38] *
Anne-Sophie Mutter, violin
London Symphony Orchestra/André Previn
* Boston Symphony Orchestra/André Previn
Deutsche Grammophon 474500 71:07
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This is an apt pairing, as these performances comment on one another and the works have some fundamental things in common. Although written nearly half a century apart, style is one of those things. Another is indicated by the titles. Bernstein said of his Serenade that "the music, like the dialogue, is a series of related statements in praise of love…" Previn's concerto, commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, was written for Mutter (before their marriage), includes a theme of her suggestion (a German folk song), and bears her name. Its dominant mood and tone is idyllic and lyrical, and it is hard not to hear it as a kind of extended love song without words. And partly because it seems implausible that another pair of musicians would perform this for a long time, it may not be too much of a stretch to identify the solo part with Anne-Sophie Mutter and the orchestral part with André Previn.

I make these prefatory remarks for these reasons: at nearly forty minutes, Previn's is one of the longest violin concertos I know (Elgar, Beethoven and Brahms exceed this length but most are shorter); the pace is mostly slow throughout; the dynamics are on the soft side; and the texture is light (with some nice woodwind and horn playing); thus the impatient listener might wonder "what is Previn doing here?" So I suggest an answer. As it happens, the more I hear the work the more I like it (with the exception of one short, broad passage in the opening movement which I would be happier without.) The concerto contains some exquisitely beautiful music, especially at the end of the second and third movements, and the violin playing is ravishing.

Previn's music is unabashedly tonal, though sometimes polytonal. The concerto has an intensely lyrical opening. This is followed by faster livelier music; that is not sustained, and the mood becomes relaxed again. Each of the movements contains some vigorous, jazzy Bernstein-like passages, providing a needed change of pace. Each of the successive movements is longer than the preceding one, which is unusual. So is the placing of the main cadenza at the very beginning of the second movement, but this works. Some of the music that most interests me is in that second movement. The liner notes give Previn's own assessment of that movement as "more barren and acidulous" than the rest; granted that it is not as lush as the first, I would never have used those words about it. The long final movement is a set of variations on "Wenn ich ein Voeglin waer" ("If I were a bird and had two wings, I'd fly to you"). It ends literally on the highest and quietest possible note.

Of living conductors, Previn may be the best possible person to conduct Bernstein's Serenade. The two musicians have had much in common, including an interest in jazz, and Previn sometimes played piano with Bernstein on the podium. At any rate, I think Bernstein would not have been unhappy with this performance, which ranges from brash to soulful as called for. Bernstein recorded the work more than once himself, initially with Zino Francescatti and the New York Philharmonic, later with Gidon Kremer and the Israel Philharmonic, and also with Isaac Stern and the Symphony of the Air. Perlman and Hahn have recorded it too. The ones I have heard are the original recording and Hahn's. The greatest contrast between Mutter/Previn and Francescatti/Bernstein is in the exquisitely songful Agathon Adagio, which makes an interesting comparison with much of the music in the Previn concerto. Mutter and Previn take this over a minute more slowly, while still expressing the intensity of its middle minutes. The Aristophanes Allegretto is also slower. The other movements are roughly comparable in duration (as are Hahn/Zinman) to the New York Philharmonic version.

Strongly recommended to anyone who cares for this kind of music.

Copyright © 2004, R. James Tobin