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Previn plays Gershwin
Andre Previn tells a wonderful story. He was accompanying a screening of D.W.Griffith's classic silent movie, Intolerance, with its scenes of Babylonish decadence set alongside those showing the life of Christ. The young Previn decided to represent the biblical scenes with stately minor chords and chorales and the stews of Rome and Babylon with jazz. Things seemed to be going well. As a talented improviser, Previn found much to engage him, making logical and seamless transitions from one setting and mood to another. Suddenly, however, he heard footsteps coming down the aisle behind him and, glancing back, saw the cinema manager advancing furiously towards him. Puzzled, he looked up, to find that he had just played Tiger Rag through the Crucifixion.
Previn's musical role in this story may serve to define the kind of sensibility he has brought to music for over half-a-century. During the years of his creative apprenticeship, which were spent in Paris and California, there was presumed to be an absolute divide between jazz and classical music. The instincts required to perform 'the devil's music' were unwelcome on the concert platform, the correctness instilled at the conservatory was perceived to be an obstacle to a jazz player. For Previn this has never been an issue. There has always been a seamless trade-off between the two
idioms, and nowhere is this clearer than in his approach to George Gershwin.
It makes no sense now to say that Gershwin is 'misunderstood' or 'underestimated'. Even the most sceptical of critics is prepared, at least, to pay lip service to the American's genius, even if only as a 'popular' composer. What Gershwin certainly is, however, is badly performed. The concert works require a touch that is not within the orthodox canon. Chords are not there to be played whole and uncoloured, but broken. There should be ambiguities in the tonality, hung notes, phrases splayed athwart the pulse. There should be no right angles, no straight edges.
Consider the extraordinary opening of the Piano Concerto in F. In most performances it is presented like the portal to some grand classical statement, shiny and unblemished, faux-Corinthian. Previn approaches it with sympathetic freshness. It's immediately clear that this language is modern, American, and far from 'classical'. Even the familiar contention between soloist and ensemble has a different function here. The piano plays within and against the group, but also across its angles. Gershwin had not expected to write a piece for the New York concert of 12 February 1924, which included the first performance of Rhapsody in Blue. He was induced to write something only because a Gershwin premiere had already been advertised. As things turned out, the piece sat rather strangely in a concert - given by the now controversial Paul Whiteman Orchestra, the creators of 'symphonicjazz' -in which jazz and Elgar were mixed. The first version of Rhapsody in Blue was for solo piano and jazz band and it was Ferde Grofe (1892-1972) who provided the orchestrations, of which the later and larger is performed here. Gershwin and Whiteman's first performance was to be one of the most celebrated premieres of the century, and it led directly to the commissioning of the Piano Concerto.
Walter Damrosch of the New York Symphony asked for the Concerto, which was first performed in New York in December 1925. It's clear that Gershwin was involved here in a very different creative process from the one he had used in Rhapsody in Blue, which, as its title suggests, is a free-flowing, almost improvisational musical poem. In the Concerto, Gershwin had different objectives. Any problem with the work arises only if one decides to accentuate the differences over the similarities. It is still unmistakably a Gershwin piece and Previn and the London Symphony Orchestra bring exactly the same instincts to it. Even the magnificent trumpet passage in the slow middle section, played here by Howard Snell, has an edge of raw intensity, alluding to the spirit of the blues without using blues intervals in a remotely orthodox way. The more than subliminal presence of the blues at this point is part of the architecture of the piece, which takes a long slow curve back from the hectic gaiety of the 1920s, represented by the 'Charleston' in the first movement, through the work's dark centre and on to the allegro agitato climax of the finale. As befits a work of symphonic structure, the Piano Concerto has no discernible programme, but it can be read, convincingly, as a meditation on the music of the century. That is where it takes its place in Gershwin's foreshortened career, the fulcrum that divides a remarkable, compressed career into 'early' and 'late' periods.
Of the latter, An American in Paris, written only two years after the Concerto, seems an odd and unlikely representative. A work as dancingly sunlit and as 'gay' (in the old sense) surely doesn't reflect the philosophical gravitas and world-weariness one associates with 'late' work? No and yes. An American in Paris is awash with cheerfully self-mocking ironies. Its uncluttered jazzy material and its range of 'found' sound effects cover it in a layer of self-consciousness that is neither sardonic nor cynical. Previn brings the right level of knowingness to it, pointing up those moments where jazz elements announce themselves only to disguise those where the sound of urban America melds with an older musical language. No, it is not a work that delivers some great truth; but yes, it is 'late' in its calm awareness that musical language has become a playful extension of the self, no longer a technique but a voice that composer and conductor can freely share.