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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770–1827)
Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67 (1805) [32:50]
Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92 (1812) [36:10]
Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela/Gustavo Dudamel
rec. Aula Magna, Ciudad Universitaria, Caracas, February 2006
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 00289 477 6228 [69:07]

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This is a quite remarkable disc in several respects, and, in due time, I am going to elucidate why I think so. To begin with though, let me give some background information and ventilate some possible objections to this project.

Venezuela is ‘a country where 75% of the population lives below the poverty line,’ - I am quoting Shirley Apthorp’s liner notes - and where ‘crime and violence are a way of life for many.’ In the midst of this misery they have invested in a rich musical life, something Gustavo Dudamel believes has saved a lot of young people from becoming involved in drugs and crime. One can object to this that possibly very few of those who take part in an active music life come from the risk category, but never mind. When I meet a young person with a violin case I feel assured that he or she is not going knock down elderly people while concerning those with sports bags I am not always so sure.

It is uplifting to read that ‘Venezuela, more than any other country in the world, offers its youngsters music as a valid alternative to hardship. In a country with a population of only 22 million, there are 125 youth orchestras, 57 children’s orchestras, and 30 adult professional symphony orchestras.’ These are amazing figures, and therein lies an explanation as to why it is that a prestigious company like Deutsche Grammophon in these times of recession, takes the risk to launch a disc with a youth orchestra (the musicians are between 11 and 25) and with a young conductor.

It is of course, Gustavo Dudamel (25), who is the selling point. He very spectacularly hit the headlines last year when he stepped in at short notice for Neeme Järvi and conducted the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra at a Proms concert. It was a success, of course – it always is in Cinderella stories. Shortly afterwards it was announced that Deutsche Grammophon had signed an exclusive contract with Dudamel. The Gothenburg musicians were so enthusiastic that Dudamel was pretty soon elected their new Principal Conductor, starting in 2007/08. I heard and saw him conduct what was, I believe, his first concert in Sweden less than a year ago. This was with the Gävle Symphony Orchestra, an excellent provincial - nothing disparaging in that - middle-sized orchestra. I wrote a very enthusiastic review for Seen and Heard . He certainly has the potential to become a great conductor and it was far-seeing of Deutsche Grammophon to hook him. Question is: is this disc the best way of launching a young promising conductor – at the helm of a youth orchestra and playing two of the most played and most recorded symphonies of all times? Deutsche Grammophon have in their vaults either or both of these with Karajan (three times), Kubelik, Böhm, Bernstein, Abbado, Giulini, Carlos Kleiber and probably several others. I didn’t even bother to look them up. Of course Dudamel wants to show his credentials as a Beethoven interpreter, but was it wise to record him before he was more established? He had his doubts himself but still wanted to do it. ‘Not /…/ that he feels he and his orchestra have more to say about this repertoire than anybody else; simply that they have their own voice,’ as Shirley Apthorp puts it. Even with that saving clause it is, I believe, unavoidable that listeners and reviewers start to make comparisons, wrinkle their foreheads, stick their noses in their scores and grumble: ‘Furtwängler didn’t do it like that in any of his ump-teen recordings, he is much faster than Karajan here, the strings don’t have the sheen of the Boston Symphony’s’, etc, etc. I decided to do none of this. I had the score for No. 7 and I even followed it for a while, but then I put it aside and said: ‘My God, this young man understands this score much better than I do, so why bother?’ Literalness is not always the best means for communication, and music-making is communication. So I leaned back and listened, made some occasional notes but in the main tried to forget that I was reviewing.

Starting from the beginning I thought the sound was a little boxy – not those stone-dead acoustics that marred Toscanini’s recording in the notorious Studio 8H but it seemed that the Aula Magna had rather little reverberation, which robbed the resulting sound of some warmth. This also results in a rawer-than-necessary quality to the brass. It is acceptable, by all means, but at premium price one would have hoped for something better.

The opening movement of the fifth was fairly brisk and a little heavy, the Andante lyrical but maybe too laid back, not enough con moto for my taste, the two concluding Allegros were fiery and brought the symphony to a powerful end. The sound of the orchestra, apart from the sonics that is, was good. In a blindfold test I would not have been able to identify this as a fairly inexperienced youth orchestra. A good fifth but it didn’t quite catch fire.

That was, on the other hand, exactly what the seventh did. The many crescendos and diminuendos in the score were well observed and the first movement had that ebb and flow that is so essential in this symphony. The rest of this "apotheosis of dance", as the symphony has been called, was played at white heat and the final movement’s con brio could in this reading be amended to con briosissimo if that word exists. I enjoyed this seventh enormously.

I can understand readers who are annoyed that I have not indulged in close comparative listening, but I also believe, having been involved in amateur and semi-professional music making for the greater part of my life, that a critic has to adopt different criteria to different levels of music-making. My local, amateur-based symphony shouldn’t be assessed along the same lines as the Gävle Symphony Orchestra, which in its turn plays in a slightly lower division than the Stockholm Philharmonic, to give an example from Swedish circumstances. As a reviewer I should be more indulgent of the odd wrong note, faulty ensemble etc when I review the amateurs. On the other hand I can take the professionals to task for even minor mistakes. The Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra is no Berliner Philharmoniker, but in their own division they are a wonderful ensemble and should be appreciated as such. By the same token Gustavo Dudamel is not – yet – a Karajan, but he might be one day. He is doing a damn good job on this disc, especially in the seventh, which should be heard by everyone who bothers about the future of classical music. I can understand readers who still object and point out that this disc sells at premium price and should be assessed along the same lines as any other premium price disc; there I tend to agree. EMI have for several years now had their "Debut" series, retailing at mid-price or thereabouts. It would have been fairer to these young and extremely promising musicians to be launched that way.

Returning to the initial paragraph I persist in thinking that this is a remarkable disc in many ways – most of all as an encouraging reminder that classical music is not dying and that there is an enthusiastic and well equipped young generation ready to take over. This could be as good a reason to buy this disc – and one gets one of the most electrifying sevenths in several years in the bargain.

Göran Forsling


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