Andre Previn's pulling power

In classical music, the "special relationship" is alive and well

Andre Previn, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Yuri Bashmet, LSO
Barbican Hall, 7.30pm, 19 February 2012

Politically things may have cooled, but in the world of classical music the transatlantic "special relationship" is still alive and flourishing. Following closely on the polished heels and glossy tail-coats of last week's New York Philharmonic's residency comes a visit from legendary octogenarian pianist and conductor Andre Previn, rejoining the London Symphony Orchestra for an all-American programme of 20th century music.

Previn may have left the position of Principal Conductor at the LSO some decades ago, but his visits have been so frequent that London audiences have scarcely had cause to mourn. Judging by the conductor's increasingly frail and effortful journeys to the podium however it's a collaboration that we should enjoy while we still have the chance - a sentiment clearly shared by the Barbican crowd, warm with enthusiasm for Previn.

The concert's centrepiece was the European premiere of Previn's own Concerto for Violin and Viola, which saw the LSO joined by the work's dedicatees, violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter (also for a time Previn's fifth wife) and violist Yuri Bashmet. Following in the tradition set by Previn's earlier compositions it's a polyglot creature, conservative in its harmonic language but borrowing freely from many different tonal traditions.

Previn's longstanding relationship with film-music prompts inevitable comparisons with Korngold, but there's an elegiac wistfulness to this particular concerto that speaks more loudly of Walton and Howells (the viola's opening gambit especially), their English voices in dialogue with jazz-inflected moments of Ravel and pure Americana. It's a modest concerto - less than 20 minutes of music, treating its two soloists texturally and often in duet.

Last night it was a pairing that worked rather better for Mutter, whose lines were unusually charged with emotion, largely obliterating the under-projected, poorly-tuned and non-committal mutterings of Bashmet. A capricious musician, Bashmet may be unbeatable on form, but his moody inconsistency is making him ever more of a risk as a soloist.

Aaron Copland's ballet Appalachian Spring in its full orchestral arrangement offered an enticing curtain-raiser, but I wonder how Martha Graham and her company of dancers would have coped with Previn's tempos which charity might call poised, but often dragged the work's pulsing syncopations almost to a standstill. Previn's beat - so precise and clear in both his own music and the Harbison symphony - seemed an unreliable guide for the LSO whose floundering ensemble and wrong entries spoke of general uncertainty. There were hints of Copland's glowing folk warmth in the slower string passages (and leader Roman Simovic's solos were a highlight) but with the work slipping in and out of focus these were never quite sustained into anything more substantial.

Although well-known in his native America, John Harbison's works are rarely heard (and still more rarely discussed) in the UK. An academic by inclination as well as by trade, his continuous five-episode Symphony No. 3 is a good sampler of the composer's technique - rigorous structural architecture underpinning attractive textural effects. With their programmatic titles - "Disconsolate", "Nostalgic", "Militant" - the movements lend themselves to evocation, an approach that works particularly well in second episode "Nostalgic", where disparate memories stir from each orchestral section - a folk tune from the woodwind, grudging remembrances from the brass - before becoming woven together in a colourful fog over sustained pedal points. "Militant" stages a vibrant fist-fight between tuned percussion and orchestra (with the LSO percussion section redeeming themselves after issues in the Copland), before we cruise into the finale and a huge groove from the brass.

Technical issues aside this was a fascinating concert: an evening's American holiday that educated as much as it entertained. The pulling-power of the mighty Previn is such that a rather abstruse programme drew a full crowd, and I'm sure I'm not alone in hoping that this most determined ambassador for American music continues to return to the London and the LSO for as long as he is able.

 

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The stuff of life: how A S Byatt intertwined the lives of William Morris and Mariano Fortuny

In Peacock & Vine, Byatt has turned works of art and their shade, texture, patina and heft into words.

How to evoke a colour in words? It is a task of daunting simplicity which A S Byatt attempts in her essay on the artist-designers William Morris and Mariano Fortuny. A Fortuny dress in pleated silk embellished with gold pomegranates is, she writes, “a colour somewhere between dark pink and pale red . . . a shining rose crossed with rust”. She adds, “no one reading what I have written will imagine the colour very well, or at all”. An adjacent photograph of the dress shows that “rose crossed with rust” is a fine description of its luscious and evasive colour – though it is also true that the words will conjure a slightly different tone in the mind of every reader, and none of those imagined russets will be exactly that of the dress.

Still, if anyone can turn words into shade, texture, patina, heft, it is Byatt. Her fictions swarm with physical objects of intense emotional potency and with characters whose lives they touch in strange and unexpected ways. Byatt herself, she writes in her introduction, has “always admired those whose lives and arts are indistinguishable from each other. And as I grow older I become more and more interested in craftsmen – glass-blowers, potters, makers of textiles.” Her own ancestors, she remarks, were Staffordshire potters.

On a first visit to the Palazzo Fortuny in Venice, Byatt found herself unexpectedly thinking about William Morris, whose work she knew well. “I was using Morris . . . to understand Fortuny. I was using Fortuny to reimagine Morris. Aquamarine, gold green. English meadows, Venetian canals.”

The two men were born four decades apart: Morris in 1834 in Walthamstow, Essex, to “a family with no aesthetic interests”, Fortuny in Granada in 1871, to an aristocratic family of artists and collectors. Each led a life of intense, multifarious ­creativity in surroundings where no distinction was made between domesticity and professional work. Morris designed houses, gardens, furniture, stained glass, tapestries, textiles, wallpaper, books and typefaces. Fortuny was a painter, photographer, theatre designer and inventor whose innovations included a system of electrical stage lighting that revolutionised the staging of Wagner’s operas.

Both he and Morris came late to textile design, but it is perhaps for this that each is now best known. In 1907, after reading a book by the archaeologist Arthur Evans, who excavated the Minoan palace at Knossos, Fortuny designed his first purely fashion creation, the Knossos scarf, incorporating Minoan imagery. In 1909 he patented his Delphos design for a pleated sheath dress in the Grecian style. The dresses were made of fine silk, dyed with vegetable dyes, hand-pleated using a technique that remains a mystery and held together with Murano glass beads. They turned the female body, of any size or shape, into a graceful column, and they were both elegant and extremely comfortable – though not, Byatt thinks, “sexy, either in 1910 or now”.

Fortuny saw his creations as works of art, and they were worn by women of highly evolved aesthetic sensibility: the dancer Isadora Duncan, the art collector Peggy Guggenheim. Byatt notes that Kay, the protagonist of Mary McCarthy’s novel The Group, was buried in a Fortuny dress. She was not the only fictional character to wear Fortuny: his designs are a potent presence in Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu. Of all the dresses owned by the narrator’s lover, Albertine, a Fortuny in blue and gold, lined in Tiepolo pink, is her favourite; when she leaves him, she takes with her only a dark blue Fortuny cloak.

In his lifetime, Morris was almost better known for his writing than for his designs. His literary output was as prodigious as his craft: a book about his journeys to Iceland; News from Nowhere, a pastoral utopian fantasy; translations of Icelandic epics and of a 16th-century Venetian book on the art of dyeing; an epic poem, “The Earthly Paradise” (vastly popular in his lifetime, but now almost unreadable, Byatt says: “The rhythms hack and bang”); as well as books and essays on art and design.

Pattern, Morris wrote in his 1881 lecture “Some Hints on Pattern Designing”, must possess “beauty, imagination and order”. It is here, in the tension between imagination and order, that Byatt finds the connections between her heroes that illuminate the work of each. In chapters on motifs that both men loved – pomegranates and birds – she explores the multitudinous ways in which they used them; the exhilarating collisions of naturalism and abstraction, the audacious juxtapositions of simplicity and complexity.

In considering this, she considers, too, the acts of making and looking. Both of her subjects, she says, were “obsessive workers, endlessly inventive, endlessly rigorous, endlessly beautiful”. They acknowledged no separation between art and labour, but made their lives and their work a seamless continuum; and, through the beauty they created, invited us to do the same.

“It is always surprising,” Byatt writes, “how people don’t really look at things.” But she does, and in this brilliant and tenderly observant little book, with its elegant Gill typeface and handsome colour illustrations, she celebrates the fruits of making and looking: “the endlessness of what is there to be imagined and shaped”. 

Peacock & Vine by A S Byatt is published by Chatto & Windus, 183pp, £14.99

Jane Shilling is a book critic for the Telegraph and the author of two books: The Fox in the Cupboard and The Stranger in the Mirror, a memoir of middle age, published in 2011. She writes on books for the New Statesman. 

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt