Previn in the Berkshires -- a potent formula
One of the particular pleasures of summer music festivals is the chance to hear repertoire not often encountered in winter seasons or hear a conductor not familiar to an orchestra's winter patrons -- or both.
Andre Previn, musci director of the Pittsburgh Symphony, recently visited Tanglewood, summer home of the Boston Symphony, for two concerts that proved to be of exceptional quality. The orchestra is usually very generous to visiting conductors. With the fewest of exceptions, it rallies often around a guest and gives him at least all he asks for and more.
But some conductors are either not organized in their rehearsals, or else do not know to indicate precisely what they want. The results in performance are often full of slight blemishes, awkward balances, inelegant phrasing.
Previn is clearly not such a conductor. Even under the tight -- almost insufficient -- rehearsal schedule of Tanglewood, Previn works the sorts of wonders it takes certain favored guests a good two or three weeks to accomplish.
The perfect demonstration of this was in a performance of Elgar's "Enigma Variations." It was not only an Elgar performance of the highest standard -- more vivid than most of the "definitive" performances for records, even Previn's own new one -- but an exceptionally well-played one. Previn gets under the skin of the music, establishes the special sound of the composer's muse, and ferrets out the emotional content quickly, astutely, eloquently.
"Enigma" is full of the most startling, stunning orchestral effects -- delicate textures that evoke a mood or even a specific image. The most vivid sample occurs in the 13th variation, the "Romanza": Elgar quotes from Mendelssohn's "Calm Sea and Prosperous Journey," under which he uses an orchestral blend that suggests the propellors of an ocean liner. The effect it builds is uncanny.
The challenge for the conductor is not only to get good playing from an orchestra but to elucidate all the images and moods of this autobiographical composition. Previn encompassed it all -- the sweep, the distinctly British (specifically Edwardian) elegance, nobility, and stately passion. The humor was ther, the power, and in "Nimrod" (the variation so often played in memoriamm ), the heartwarming nobility. The orchestra was in superb form.
It was in even better form the following evening for Previn's account of Mahler's Fourth Symphony. Again, one came away with a sense of the utter honesty and integrity of the conductor. There is not a wasted or self-serving gesture in his podium manner. It all serves the music, economically yet clearly. This was a leisurely Mahler Fourth, and an opulent shower of color washed every page, from the delicate sleigh-bell opening motif to the tolling in the harp some 61 minutes later at the closing. Previn proved -- as not all conductors do -- that the Fourth is not all that simple a piece, and not all that sunny a piece, even if it never indulges in the hysteria of most of his other symphonies.
Even under the sticky, humid conditions in the Berkshires, the orchestra played marvelously -- with loving attention, and a real sense of collective musical effort. The soloist was the young soprano Kathleen Battle, who was a bit hard put to fill the expanses of the Music Shed. But hers is a simple, direct-from-the-heart approach that captures the essence of the text Mahler set as the last movement of this remarkable work.
Earlier she had offered a set of Schubert songs that revealed what a pure and expressive sound the possesses, what she will be able to do later on with these songs, and what, as yet, is missing. Now she just barely gets under the texts of Schubert, does not quite make these songs her own as yet. She needs to live the material before she develops into the radiant lieder artist she has all the earmarks of someday becoming.
Previn the accompanist was taxed to the utmost in the work that opened the first of his two concerts -- Rachmaninoff's monumental Third Concerto, with Horacio Guttierez the dazzling soloist. This concerto had been the vehicle of the pianist's BSO debut in November 1971, and while the interpretation has not deepened perceptibly, the technical accomplishment has. Tempos are, if anything , faster, in an approach that remains musical and sincere. If Gutierrez did not plumb the emotional depths, and if occasionally his tempo changes sounded a bit too arbitrary, nevertheless it was thrilling. Previn kept up with him almost all the way. One sensed, however, that the work was not as well rehearsed as it should have been. Still one heard details and accentuations in Previn's work too often lost under other batons.
The weekend was topped off by an afternoon Seiji Ozawa concert that began with a sumptuous if bland Beethoven "Pastorale," complete with rumbling thunder outside the shed. The intermission was interrupted by a spectacular natural display of lightning, wind, and torrential rain that swept right through the shed.
Finally Ozawa led his forces through Stravinsky's grueling "Rite of Spring." What a feat it is to put over a great performance of this titanic work. The orchestra is put through the most rigorous of paces. Ozawa does it from memory (as he does everything) and there seemed to be nary a slip -- just an electrifying performance of a work that has become an Ozawa signature piece and that he manages with amazing security and power.