It’s been a long time since André Previn was a regular part of the UK music scene. But anyone who loved classical music and who lived in Britain in the later 20th century is bound to feel a pang at the news of his death. He was a constant genial presence on the podium and on our TV screens, explaining the intricacies of a symphony or a sonata with relaxed charm.
Those memories are inextricably mingled with memories of his famous appearance on the Morecombe and Wise Show. “Shall I get my baton? It’s in Chicago” was his famously unscripted one-liner, and his perfect unflappability when Eric Morecombe kept calling him Mr Preview or Mr Previt helps to make the sketch a classic. Years later in a Guardian interview Previn said that London taxi-drivers still called him Mr Preview.
Previn’s ease and charm were part-and-parcel of his musical gifts, which had the same quality of easy facility. Not for him the long struggle to formulate an idea, or the wrestling with modernist forms of “mathematical” composing – a predominant feature of his age which simply passed Previn by. His musicality was of the old-fashioned kind, arising directly from improvisation, a brilliant piano technique, and an extraordinarily well-stocked memory. He could turn to the piano in mid-conversation and recall whole stretches of symphonies and concertos. Even more impressive was his ability to spin a jazz riff on any popular melody you could name. People who know Previn only from his conducting were only dimly aware of this side of his talent, but he really was an astonishing jazz pianist, in the virtuoso Art Tatum mould.
It was Previn’s improvisational skills that got him noticed him in Hollywood in his teens, where he worked for over 20 years as a film composer (which was far too long, he later opined). His film scores are also amazingly accomplished, in a way that tempers Golden Age romantic fervor with acerbic modernistic harmonies.
My favourite is the grimly atmospheric score he composed for Bad Day at Black Rock at the age of 26 – by which time he was already a seasoned pro. But he already had his sights on classical music, recording Mozart’s four-handed piano music in the same year. His years of experience conducting studio orchestras meant he had no trouble, making the transition to the orchestral podium.
It’s significant that Previn’s four Oscars were won for film scores where the basic melodic material was not his own. Like many musicians who were fantastically fluent his talent was more recreative than creative, and the talent was yoked to a keen critical faculty and a deep very Europeanised culture (Previn spent his first eight years in Germany, and retained his fluency in the language). So in retrospect it’s not surprising that beginning in the late 1950s Previn gradually switched to a new career as a classical conductor, in which he was also brilliantly successful. Among his several top conducting jobs was an eleven-year stint as chief conductor of London Symphony Orchestra, beginning in 1969, when he became a familiar figure on these shores.
It has to be said Previn was not the most electrifying figure on the podium. During his later, mostly unhappy tenure at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, people complained about his lack of charisma.
But his brilliant and insightful musicianship resulted in some terrific performances and recordings, particularly of British repertoire, for which he had a particular gift. His recordings of the complete Vaughan Williams symphonies are among the best on disc, but my favourite recording is the one he made of Francis Poulenc’s witty 1920s Sextet, where Previn’s slyly jazz-tinged piano gives the music a unique colour.
In all Previn was a fabulously gifted musician who as a composer brought together American jazzy sassiness, film-score romanticism and European sophistication, and as a conductor and TV host did more to bring classical music to the millions than many more venerable names.