Leonard Bernstein aside, André Previn, who passed away in February at the age of 89, was perhaps the most complete and accomplished American musician of his generation.
Composer, virtuoso pianist, jazz man and accompanist, over seven decades he worked with everyone from Dame Janet Baker to Ella Fitzgerald leaving his mark on most musical fields of endeavour. But perhaps it is as a conductor that he should be best remembered. From the early-1960s to the mid-1990s, Previn held a series of prestigious posts, chief of which would have to be his 11 years as principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra. Over 35 years, he cut a wide-ranging series of discs for RCA and Columbia, all of which are now owned by Sony who collected them together in a 55-disc box set, originally intended as a 90th-birthday tribute, now a fitting memorial. And what a collection!
That stint in the UK certainly paid off. Chief among the glories here must be his pioneering and daringly dramatic cycle of the Vaughan Williams symphonies – the first ever helmed by a non-Brit – which can still hold its own against all-comers and contains many unsurpassed performances and thrilling insights. He’s equally masterful at interpreting Walton, his account of the First Symphony blisteringly effective, plus the Cello Concerto with Yo-Yo Ma (coupled with a fine account of the Elgar) and the Viola Concerto with Bashmet. Curiosity collectors can also find the Maxwell Davies Violin Concerto played by its dedicatee Isaac Stern (yes, really!)
Previn was also at home in Russian rep (his Russian-Jewish family background?) and his fiery account of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony – the recording that made his name – is rightly legendary. His Rachmaninov symphonies and Piano Concertos Nos 1 and 4 (here with Leonard Pennario – he’d re-record them with Ashkenazy), and a stonking Khachaturian Piano Concerto with Lorin Hollander are all top notch.
He was also ahead of the pack on occasion, recording Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem the year before the composer himself did (and winning hands down on electric charge). There are also pioneering discs of Gershwin works for piano and orchestra (Previn the soloist, André Kostelanetz the conductor) and Previn’s first solo piano recital for which he managed to persuade Columbia to let him champion Hindemith, Barber and Frank Martin.
Other gems include the Beethoven piano concertos with an elegant Emanuel Ax and his RSC collaboration with Tom Stoppard, Every Good Boy Deserves Favour, whose original cast includes Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart. Perhaps only his Beethoven symphonies show signs of the artistic fires diminishing.
These are dynamic, thoughtful readings that always find something new to say in a set that every record collector should own.
Performer: Various Orchestras & Soloists/André Previn
Catalogue Number: Sony 19075831672 (55CD)