When it comes to choosing the best recording of William Walton’s First Symphony, without any hesitation I would go for André Previn’s 1967 reading with the London Symphony Orchestra. In fact, towards the end of his life, Walton was so impressed by Previn’s tireless effort in promoting his music that he decided to write a Third Symphony for Previn. Sadly, Walton only lived to complete the opening page of the work, which bears a dedication to Previn. You can take a peep at the manuscript in Michael Kennedy’s marvellous Portrait of Walton (1989).
Rather than getting acquainted with the name of André Previn by way of his work as a conductor or Morecambe and Wise, I first came across his name in some of his early recordings as a jazz pianist for the Contemporary label in the last 1950s – My Fair Lady (1957), Pal Joey (1957), Gigi (1958), and the three extraordinary solo albums he made between 1958 and 1959, each one of them dedicated to the songs of a single composer (or songwriter, if you wish).
André Previn Plays Songs by Vernon Duke (1958), the first of the trilogy, is the most fascinating on two levels: firstly, the choice of composer, and secondly, the playing itself.
Vernon Duke (born Vladimir Dukelsky) is now remembered as the composer of popular songs – Autumn in New York, April in Paris, I Can’t Get Started, or Taking a Chance on Love – well known jazz standards of supreme intricacy, and yet, the number of people who can name the composer of these songs are few. Duke must be turning in his grave in a tumble-dryer fashion to learn that his serious concert œuvres, once championed by Diaghilev, Gershwin, Koussevitzky and Prokofiev, hardly see the light of day nowadays. His Zéphyr et Flore and Epitaphe are available on the Chandos label, giving a glimpse of the works of yet another underrated composer.
There is a list of jazz pianists whose names keep coming up in conversations on iconic jazz playing – Art Tatum, Erroll Garner, Oscar Peterson, Thelonious Monk and Bill Evans. Somehow, André Previn never quite makes it on to this list, and unfairly so. Listening to André Previn Plays Songs by Vernon Duke for the first time was a real ear-opener for me; perfect balance of technical sophistication and musicality; at times the playing got so complicated rhythmically one would wonder if there were two persons playing four-handed. I always had this funny image of Previn transforming into Vishnu at the piano when I listened to his early jazz recordings. His jazz playing got much mellower in his later recordings – After Hours (1989) and Uptown (1990) for example. To me, they are similarly loveable. But it is the electricity in these early solo recordings (which also include André Previn Plays Songs by Jerome Kern (1959) and André Previn Plays Songs by Harold Arlen (1960)) that is vividly etched into my memory. It is the same electricity that powers the extraordinary recording of Walton’s symphony.