Andre Previn was the popular face of classical music

There was a time in the 1970s when Andre Previn, who died today aged 89, was one of the most familiar faces on British television. You simply could not escape him. If he was not conducting the London Symphony Orchestra in Andre Previn’s Music Night, he was appearing on the Morecambe and Wise comedy show or, failing all else, acting as a television salesman in adverts for Thorn-EMI.

No classical musician had his scale of recognition, or his record sales. It was reckoned that most British households owned at least one Previn recording.

The head of EMI Classics, Peter Andry, told me once that Previn’s profits paid for all the label’s losses on recording by the ultra-expensive Herbert von Karajan.

His success was inevitably resented and the upper echelons of classical music sniffed that he was ‘not one of us’, a Hollywood composer who masqueraded as a serious conductor. Yet musicians responded keenly to his unpretentious approach and his performances of Mozart, Rachmaninov and Walton were often in a class of their own. Beethoven and Elgar perhaps not, but you can’t have everything.

His 11 years as principal conductor of the LSO were the summit of his podium career, full of energy, invention and wit. Andre bought into the spirit of Swinging London, got his outfits at Carnaby Street and took a house in the Surrey stockbrokers’ belt. Some of the players demanded greater depth and looked to the stiff-backed Eugen Jochum but Previn was the spirit of the LSO and some of his elan remains with them to this day.

His other music director stints- in Houston, Pittsburgh, LA and Oslo – were conspicuously less successful. Yet he was ultra-reliable, the ultimate professional. One orchestra manager told me she invited him every season ‘because he always turns up’.

With frequent rotation of wives (he married five times) he was never out of the gossip columns for long and his notoriety drew ever longer faces among the classical snobs. Previn affected not to notice. He was a bon viveur, a colourful raconteur and a man who enjoyed musical life to the full.

Aside from his film scores and two operas, he wrote music for a Tom Stoppard play, Every Good Boy Deserves Favour.

He was always the life and soul of the party.

UPDATE: Previn never let you down

UPDATE2: Anne-Sophie Mutter: I lost my soulmate

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  • Remarkable musician; about the only one who could rival Bernstein. TV personality, composer, pianist, conductor…he could do it all. His Vaughan Williams is still tops for me, and many other fine recordings, especially those Korngold ones on DG. Loved hearing him with LA Phil. RIP. You left the music world a much better place.

  • Marvellous musician who broke down barriers for many music lovers. Watch the YouTube videos of him interviewing Oscar Peterson and then playing alongside him.Insightful, intellectual and exactly what an interview should be, and indeed he was somewhat in awe of Petersons playing and technique. And who can forget “I am playing the rights notes, but not necessarily in the right order” he will be sadly missed.

    • I had never seen the interview in London. Great recommendation! Hope a few others take the time to watch and learn. RIP, Andre Previn.

  • At his very best — and he did truly exemplary work as a conductor, composer, and pianist — Previn was a superb musician, whose outward “cool” was a mask for some riveting and insightful work. His Rachmaninov Second Symphony and Prokofiev “Nevsky” with the Los Angeles Philharmonic made for thrilling evenings at the concert hall.

    Here is an old personal favorite, a recording I grew up from early childhood (an oft-played LP from my parents’ library), that was my introduction to Previn:

    https://youtu.be/1WxpHeuBo2s

    Today I’ll listen to his first (LSO) recording of Walton’s First, my single favorite recording of Previn as conductor.

    Rest in peace, Maestro.

    • He was also a first-rate accompanist: not all important conductors are. When he played jazz at the piano, he was 100 per cent a jazz musician. When he played Classical music: 100 per cent a Classical pianist. What talent!

      • Yes, I think some of his best work was accompanying the soloist during a concerto with the orchestra. Too many conductors are bored, as if waiting for the nights real conducting in the second half after the intermission. He didn’t and took it seriously.

  • And let’s not forget his Vaughan Williams cycle!
    He could in fact illuminate several less performed composers through his quiet, slightly exotic and yet completely unpresumptuous podium manner.
    He had a knack for lush, luminous and sumptuous orchestral sonorities, and occasionally, he would be outmost thrilling, and with little effort and an honest lack of flashyness…

    And personally, I won’t forget his fascinating Jazz-playing and his discussions with Oscar Peterson!
    R.I.P. André!

  • CORRECTION TO MY POST:

    Second paragraph:
    Please add “with”:

    “…a recording I grew up with…”

    Thank you.

  • His Rachmaninoff concertos with Ashkenazy are still a thing of wonder, and the full footage of him interviewing and playing jazz with Oscar Peterson is still some of the best TV I have ever seen. A great and and fascinating talent.

  • He was a Class Act. Talented, amusing, calm and collected. The Vienna Phil refused to take an orchestral bow when he asked them to, preferring to let him have the applause to himself—Carmina Burana, Musikverein, 1993, live recording on Sony. And his jazz piano playing was terrific as well…………..Thanks, Mr Preview.

    • Wow — a beautifully-constructed medley, masterfully played and conducted, interspersed with shots of major figures from the world of film in the audience…puts the cheesy production numbers of most Oscars shows since then to shame.

  • For me, his Elgar First Symphony recording is the best in a very crowded field. Marvellous musician. Thank you for the music, maestro.

  • Sad news. A very underrated conductor. I think there was a lot of ‘what does an American think he can show us’ when he came to London. Pre in came out on top though. His Vaughan Williams cyle is as good as there is, along with the best Walton 1. Rachmaninoff orchestral works and Shostakovich 8 are excellent also.

  • Sad news and may the man rest in peace for eternity. Agree with the assessment that he was a class act all the way.

  • I don’t know that he was my favorite interpreter of anything, nor that he was a particularly good music director – perhaps better as a guest conductor than an orchestra builder – but how can one not appreciate someone with such a diversity of talents?

    And I give him big points for trying to revive Harold Shapero’s Symphony for Classical Orchestra. Which he performed, recorded and toured while in LA (and with some other orchestras). Sadly, it didn’t stick (any conductors out on SD-world reading this? Check it out).

  • If you haven’t read his Hollywood memoir, ‘No Minor Chords’, you’re missing one of the greatest treats you could imagine. Hilarious, subtle, joyous story-telling. Find a copy as soon as you can!

  • I saw him with the London Symphony 2x on their 1976 US tour, once in Richmond, VA, in a concert which featured Haydn #96/Brahms Haydn Variations & Prokofiev 5th and once at the Kennedy Center in DC doing a contemporary British piece and a really outstanding Rachmaninoff 3rd Symphony. Does anyone know what the British piece might have been? I haven’t been able to unearth my program booklet for that concert.

    I recall a story he told about when he was touring as a classical pianist and was scheduled to play Strauss’s Burleske with George Szell (known to be nasty on his best days) and the Cleveland Orchestra. Sometime in the weeks before the concert Previn and Szell happened to cross paths while touring. Szell asked Previn to come to his hotel room and they could go over Burleske. Previn arrived and saw that there was no piano. He asked Szell, “What do I play on?” “Use the coffee table”, said Szell. Feeling the whole thing was rather crazy, Previn sat on the edge of the couch, facing the coffee table. Szell began to conduct an imaginary orchestra, singing the orchestral parts as he did. Previn made his entrance, with his fingers running up and down the coffee table. “Too slow! Too slow!” shouted Szell. “I’m not used to the action of your coffee table.”, Previn replied. That ended the rehearsal.

  • My father, an ultra-purist when it came to music, thought of Previn purely as a cocktail-music pianist, not even real jazz much less classical, and once proclaimed, “we will never have an Andre Previn recording in this house.” Then he and my mother were offered free tickets for great seats to a Chicago Symphony concert to be conducted by Previn and I am sure he swallowed hard before accepting. His views took a 180 degree turn that night and he called to tell me “this guy Previn is a real conductor, and a great one.”

    His Vaughn Williams cycle is rightly praised by others in the comments to this sad news, but I will mention another: the piano trios by Ravel and Debussy on RCA Victor Red Seal. (Julie Rosenfeld and Hoffman). I think it is some of his finest music making, and best and most sensitive piano playing, on disc.

    Mention should be made of his cousin (or was it uncle?) Charles Previn, himself something of a crossover musician. We have an old 1930s newspaper with an ad for a concert by George Gershwin and full orchestra on tour here in Milwaukee – conducted by Charles Previn.

  • On a less exalted level than the contributions so far I’d just like to add that the Morecambe & Wise sketch is one of the funniest things ever on TV and Mr Preview is to be commended for playing some of the notes in the right order. R.I.P.

  • During the 1990s, Previn had a close relationship with the Curtis Institute of Music because of his friendship with Gary and Naomi Graffman. Waiving his usual fees, he conducted several concerts in Philadelphia at the Academy of Music and a concert in Carnegie Hall with the Curtis Symphony Orchestra. He was responsible for an EMI recording in the early 90s which included a stunning performance of Vaughan Williams 5th and the Tallis Fantasia (attached below). It was produced by Phil Ramone and not subsidized by the school. He also led a European tour of the school orchestra in 1999 with Ms. Mutter as soloist in concerti by Mozart and Penderecki. He was a great artist, sometimes complicated, but always a true gentleman. Thank you Sir Andre.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3BtmFCz6TxU

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