Tag Archives: Andre Previn

Britten’s Sea Interludes

I was introduced to the Britten Peter Grimes Interludes by my uncle, a classical LP collector who unfortunately tossed his entire collection of early stereo LPs when going through a divorce years ago. I can’t remember, for the life of me, the performance he first sent me on cassette tape. I wound up learning to love the four-movement suite, despite an inability to ever connect with Britten overall, in his operatic works or otherwise. In this short ensemble however he grabs you and holds on tight.

I was sparked to revisit my preferences in this piece recently when uncovering a Van Beinum Concertgebouw mono LP, LL-917, the old red/gold FFRR label. Available on CD here, thought I can’t vouch for its sound quality. After a round on the VPI, I was shocked at the vivid sound and subtle performance of my old, round piece of plastic. I’d though one would only get this kind of trascendent performance from an English countrymen in such a work as this. But depsite the ticks and pops this is one remarkable reading. The orchestral depth is clear and arresting in both the attaca segments, and in the gentler ones.

The contenders I compared it with are Previn, on EMI/HMV 37142, unparalleled for sound in four-channel quadraphonic. Indeed this is one of the finest of all SQ quad records I’ve encountered — not ping-pong sonics with tubas coming from back left, but a full, rich sense of being in the middle of the orchestra. And when then full richness of “Moonlight” sinks over you, there is no other way to experience it. Van Beinum is skittish and edgy, vigorous, but even through the fog of years and technological development, cannot parallel Previn’s voluptuousness.

And in the modern digital class I still recognize Handley, on Chandos 1184. Whatever my uncle sent me on tape, this was my first CD of the piece, and it has not grown old. Compared to Previn (rich, measured, and voluptuous) and Van Beinum (edgy and energetic) Handley seems almost restrained, with that gorgeous Chandos sound, its vague reverb and even rhythms. How English! The opening bars are sprite-like, cascading and evoking an almost fantasy-like experience (nowhere more so than in those last few uneasy bars of the fourth movement). In this the Handley version is unique and delivers something entirely different from either Previn or Van Beinum.

There is a secret in these bars, and white maybe the most direct of these three interpreters, Handley’s hands manage the secret in most sensitive terms. Previn wraps us up in the secret, envelops us in it unabashedly. Van Beinum makes it a challenge to us. But Handley eases us in to the mystery. All three interpretations are revealing.

Together the trio present a full range of how these “Interludes” can be presented, painted in the most vivid and differentiated orchestral colors. Truly different interpretations of an underappreciated work.

P.S. Maybe Sir Simon will program this with Berlin. I would love to hear it, and I’m probably not alone.

Rhapsody in Blue

As a classically trained pianist, I drifted into jazz under the influence of a wonderful teacher, Diana Allen, who played with Glenn Miller and many of the best swing orchestras in the 1950s. She taught me to love jazz. And ragtime, and swing. The closest I ever got to professional performance of a major work was Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, which carpal tunnel ultimately kept me from. But I went through the score and the recorded works like nothing I’d done before.

I’m revisiting it now as I’m thinning out my LP collection and listened to a recording of Slatkin doing Catfish Row (one of the only available versions on vinyl) that I ultimately found disappointing. I knew there was another one — and digging through the iPod found the James Levine DGG chamber version, which has not only a fantastic Catfish, but the best Rhapsody on record. It is the “jazz band” version, not the overblown Ferde Grofe re-orchestration popularized by Bernstein in his famed CBS version. Why not let us hear those saxophones, like the composer intended? Likewise Previn’s sonically gorgeous EMI recording with the LSO, which I am revisiting on 45rpm special issue. It’s too smooth (and no saxes). But maybe that’s my bias speaking, as a ragtimer.

What Levine ultimately gets right is not just the saxes, but the jazzy tone. Or, to put it better, the half-jazzy tone. Gershwin was living in the musical middle world of Scott Joplin, my favorite American composer. Like Joplin, Gershwin was not quite trying to write jazz in the classical idiom…or classical in the jazz idiom. He was splitting the difference, as do all great musical innovators. Haydn/Mozart, by example. Or the variations of Brahms on Haydn, which I’ve blogged about here before. Or Vaughan Williams on Tallis.

But back to Gershwin. Like Joplin, he can be played like he is a modern American Grieg or Liszt. This is too much what Lenny does, as dramatic and sonically super it all is. Or Previn, to a lesser degree of Romantic pretension. Gershwin is not Grieg or Liszt. He wants to swing just as Joplin wanted to dance the cakewalk. So I say no to Joshua Rifkin playing Joplin like he is Bach; but also to Dick Hyman playing him as though he is on the hurdy-gurdy. There is a middle way. It is distinctly American.

Levine’s Gershwin finds this. There is a jazzy flutter to the rhythm, but a dramatic structure to the pianism. Those trombones come in with ruffle, but also with precision. It’s jazzy, and it swings. But it is still a consistent, disciplined thing, a Classical work in that very traditional sense. And he nails the iconic finale in a discrete, and swinging way that puts the big-band versions to shame.

Yet, every note was down on the page; this was not improvisational jazz. It was, in its own way, classical music…or a half-breed of these two.

It reminds us that even the great Duke Ellington wrote out his solos note-by-note for his soloists. And Joplin, the American Schumann…though not entirely…the categories are complicated. This is an American idiom, and Levine nails it more than anyone on record, at least in the Rhapsody. I’d be infinitely curiously to hear him perform some solo Gershwin tunes, as Previn has to great effect. As he reaches his retirement, let’s commend Maestro Levine for getting Gershwin right.