André the Amazing

André Previn with the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra in 2004 (A. P. Mutter)
Notes on André Previn, 1929–2019

For maybe 50 years, I have listened to André Previn. For maybe 25, I have written about him. I wrote about him in January, here. “A Dazzler,” that post was titled. Maybe I could jot a few more notes? This phenomenal musician and personality has died at 89.

In 1999, I wrote a piece called “André, Anyone?” (It is not findable on the Internet, at least by me.) It said that Previn could be considered “the great man of music in the world today.” He was complete — or as complete as anyone could be: a composer of classical music; a composer of popular music; a classical pianist; a jazz pianist; and a conductor — one of the leading conductors of the world.

Moreover, he wrote beautifully. Prose, I mean. He wrote much like he played the piano — gracefully, nimbly, intelligently. (He talked the same way, frankly.) His memoir of Hollywood, No Minor Chords, is a winner. If he had wanted to be a writer, full-time — well, he could have been.

I mentioned Previn’s multiple talents in my January post. A reader wrote in to say, “Don’t forget his comedic ability!” So true. Here is his famous sketch with the comedy team of Morecambe and Wise.

By the way, there was one other man, in Previn’s general time, with the same range of abilities. That, of course, was Leonard Bernstein (1918–90). How were relations between Bernstein and Previn? You know, I don’t know. I could ask around.

Previn was born in 1929, in Berlin. His original name was Andreas Ludwig Priwin. Is the middle name a tribute to Beethoven? I have heard that. It would be neat if it were true. The Priwins got out, just in time: 1938. The Nazis would gladly have burned little Andreas to death, along with everyone else. Think of the lives that were lost — snuffed out — in the Holocaust. Lives of all types. Imagine not wanting Previn to live.

The family went to Hollywood, where a relative, Charles Previn, was working, as I remember. He was a well-known studio musician. André became one too — even better-known. Before I leave the subject of Charlie Previn, let me tell you something: My grandmother had a friend — I did too — who had been a singer. She had worked with Charlie Previn. I can hear her talking about it right now. I can remember just where we were. He was a marvelous musician, she said.

André was quite the hotshot. The coolest cat in town. He might have been small, and a little funny-looking, but he was an all-time ladies man. He went with, and married, some of the most beautiful women in the world. There are lots of stories. Maybe I could mention one thing.

In his later years, he was in a relationship with a much younger woman. (This does not narrow things down.) He was old and gnomish; she was young, beautiful, and desired by everybody. As I’m given to understand, the relationship foundered because of jealousy. Not his.

Ladies and gentlemen, he had it. I don’t say I approve. I’m not doing a moral sketch here. I’m saying, simply, that he had it — in spades. Warren Beatty might shake his head in wonder.

Okay, back to music. I don’t remember when I first heard him, live and in the flesh. (I’m sure I had been hearing his recordings, and seeing him on television, for years before.) I do remember a time he came to my hometown of Ann Arbor, Mich. I can’t remember the orchestra or chorus. Anyway, they had scheduled an all-Brahms program: the Tragic Overture followed by the German Requiem.

After the lights dimmed, Previn walked out onstage to address the audience. A decision had been made, he said: The chorus was already on the stage, the Requiem was enough for one concert, so the overture would be omitted. “Next time we come,” said Previn, “we’ll play the overture twice.” This was a charming remark — classic Previn — and the audience chuckled appreciatively. I, however, wanting to hear the whole program, was ticked.

I heard him many times, as conductor and pianist, in all sorts of repertoire. (I heard him as composer many times too — in his multiplicity of genres.) He had a special relationship with the Rachmaninoff Symphony No. 2 in E minor. He was under its skin. He was also unsurpassed in the Elgar First.

Which leads me to say this: André Previn was an American, true, but almost no one expressed the British sensibility better, in music.

Another thing: Previn was the kind of talent that doesn’t really need to practice — I’m talking about piano playing now (an orchestra needs to be rehearsed, for sure). There are lots of piano stories — as many as there are, um, amorous stories. Previn would show up somewhere, for a piano gig — classical or jazz — and say, “Hello, nice to see you. What are we doing, again?” Whatever it was, he would sit down and pull it off.

This both miffed and awed people.

Virtually no music was off limits to him — he excelled in it all. He was not crazy about opera, however (despite the fact that he wrote two of them). In a recent review of a Rigoletto, I quoted Previn: “A girl in a bag, really? A girl in a bag, who is dressed as a man, and dead, but not quite, and has a conversation with her father, a hunchback? Really?”

Rigoletto is an immortal masterpiece, as Previn would surely agree. But that he had a point about the story, can’t be denied.

In January, I offered a Previn potpourri — a series of links — which I thought I would re-offer. It was Previn wearing his various hats. Composer? Of classical music? Try his violin concerto, which he wrote for Anne-Sophie Mutter (whom he went on to marry). Composer of jazz, or popular music? Here’s his song “Like Young.” As classical pianist? Mozart’s concerto in C minor (which he also conducts). As jazz pianist? “This Can’t Be Love,” recorded in 1947, when Previn was a teen. As conductor? Well, hard to beat that Rachmaninoff symphony.

Go ahead, binge on Previn, via YouTube or some other system of your choice. You will be repaid, on and on.

In 2007, Previn came out with an album called “Alone: Ballads for Solo Piano.” Maybe I could quote a bit from the review I wrote:

The first of the 12 songs on “Alone” is “Angel Eyes.” And the playing is typical of Mr. Previn’s jazz: gentle, suave, urbane — songful, too. This is nighttime jazz (but is there any other kind?). And it is somewhat autumnal, elegiac.

It is also exceptionally beautiful. And Mr. Previn’s playing on this album at large is beautiful. I have not heard him play better in years.

A bit more:

… Mr. Previn’s talent is almost unseemly. He refers to his jazz excursions as “once a year for a day.” Apparently, he simply sat down and recorded these numbers, with no “Take Two,” no anything.

A final passage:

He is such a cool cat, André Previn. Recently, I saw a photo of him, sitting at the piano, probably 18 (the age at which he recorded his first jazz album). Slick black hair, cig hanging from mouth. His expression seems to say, “I can do anything.” And, at almost 80, he still can.

You know what Anne-Sophie Mutter said, when news of André’s passing came? “Right now André is probably in the middle of a jam session with Oscar and Wolfgang … and he will outplay them.” (“Oscar” would be Peterson, and “Wolfgang” Mozart.)

You want to see a beautiful tweet from Mia Farrow, to whom André was married in the 1970s? Go here.

Recently, I requested an interview with him. I was thinking podcast, on all sorts of things. On Tuesday, I got a note from a kind representative of his in Britain: “Currently André is recovering from a spell in hospital but I am sure he will be happy to have a conversation once he recovers. I will keep you posted.” On Thursday, the great musician — the eternal hotshot — died.

A barely equaled talent, and a provider of great happiness. Louis Armstrong used to say, “I have come in the cause of happiness.” Thanks for everything, André. Listening to you now. Bet I always will.


The Latest