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Previn/Pittsburgh’s Disappointing Gershwin

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Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue; Piano Concerto; An Ame

Jeremy Lee writes

André Previn was, by general consensus, one of the greatest jazz pianists in the 1950s, and precisely because of that notion I purchased this album with the expectation that it would be the most sassy, jazzy version out there, an expecation that, at least here, were not fully met, to say the least.  I will acknowledge that his first version of these works with the London Symphony Orchestra on EMI were stupendous efforts, saucy and imbued with the jazz idiom, but his remake here is as sloppy and uninteresting as it could ever be.

First, let’s get the sonics out of the way.  They are reasonably clear for the orchestra, though it sports tremendously muddy bass, robbing the pieces off much rhythmic impact, and there are some balance problems:  the jazz percussion section is too far back save the cymbals which are too far forward.  But the main problem is the piano in the Concerto and Rhapsody which sounds simply nauseating:  extremely shallow and yet very soft-toned, it’s one of Philips’ more unsuccessful efforts in recording the piano.  If what they wanted was to make the piano sound like a jazz piano by only making it sound shallow, it could have worked, but not by making it sound so opaque and rounded at the same time!

Them we have Previn’s playing, which is certainly not bad–in fact, it’s technically excellent–but most of the time he just sounds uninterested, and most willing to get over with the piece, though I appreciate his treatment of the final octave melody of the Rhapsody very much, which has quite a lot of lilt and is very light-handed, unlike most other pianists who plow their paws into that passage (marked ff, actually, but Previn’s way is equally valid).  The Concerto is also fine technically, but like I said, it’s played as if Previn didn’t know what jazz was all about.

But I guess most of the blame lies with the orchestra, which plays with all the verve and agility of an elephant.  For one, the saxophones are simply too timid in the Rhapsody and the An American in Paris when their solis should splash the music with color, and there is a certain passage in the Rhapsody (at around 3:33 where the key changes to C Major) where the drums and trumpets should roll and flutter-tongue respectively all the way to the climax, but in this instance they simply give up trying, which is extremely frustrating.  Also observe how poker-faced, how disinterested the orchestra sounds in that twelve-bar-blues passage in An American in Paris, then compare and contrast it to Bernstein’s New York version on Sony–the results speak for themselves.

These results are fine and expected if–oh, I don’t know–late Karajan or Klemperer was at the helm, but here we have André Previn, whose playing was influenced by such jazz legends as Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson, and while this influence is quite prominent in his first recording, the remake here shows none of that pedigree, which begs the question:  has André lost his feel for jazz?  I shall quote Jeremy Clarkson in closing:  “I have to use the strongest word in the English language:  ‘disappointing’…That meant [I] had high hopes for [Previn and his team] and that [they] had let [me] down.”  And that, ladies and gentlemen, is that.

Details

  • Album name:  Gershwin:  Rhapsody in Blue;  An American in Paris;  Concerto in F
  • Performers:  André Previn (pianist and conductor);  Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra
  • Label:  Decca 478 3355
  • Sonics:  Stereo DDD
  • Total playing time:  63:41
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Author: Top Ear

Musical hooligans.

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