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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 5 in C sharp minor (1901)
Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela/Gustavo Dudamel
rec. Ciudad Universitaria, Aula Magna, Caracas, February 2006
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON  00289 477 6545 [69.25] 


Think back to all the great conductors of Mahler’s music in the past who, even in the prime of their experience, never had the opportunity to record his music for any of the major record companies.  Men like William Steinberg and Berthold Goldschmidt, for example.  Then there were those whose commercial Mahler recordings were so few that their existence might just as well have been the result of luck.  Men like Dimitri Mitropoulos, Rudolf Schwarz, Charles Adler, Jascha Horenstein and Hermann Scherchen.  Most of their Mahler interpretations we know largely from the chance of broadcasts being preserved by radio stations or just enthusiasts at home. Released subsequently in inferior sound, often on pirate labels, they stand as monuments to missed opportunities.  Even John Barbirolli never got to record commercially some Mahler works that were central to his repertoire.  So it is ironic that now, when the once huge classical recording industry has downsized almost to extinction, that one of the last surviving great labels should here release at full price a near-debut studio recording containing Mahler’s Fifth conducted by a man half the age and more of those scandalously ignored until their deaths and played by a Youth Orchestra from Venezuela.  It would be interesting to know, when there are comparatively so few opportunities to release anything classical these days, just what the reasoning behind this release was inside DG.

Let me say straight away that it is certainly not without merit.  Indeed, as you will see, there are some aspects to this recording which, in my opinion, place it the equal of some recordings conducted by men of greater experience than Gustavo Dudamel.  However, let me simply record that my eyebrows remain in raised position because, released like this at full price and with a big advertising budget, the prospective buyer has no choice but to consider it alongside all of the recordings that are currently available and ask if it should be preferred ahead of some of the greatest conductors and orchestras ever to record Mahler that did make it into big label marketing.  DG and Dudamel are taking a very big chance which cannot seriously come off. 

The fact that this is a youth orchestra need not in itself be an impediment.  My own prime recommendation for this work has for years been a recording by another youth orchestra, the Junge Deutsche Philharmonie conducted by Rudolf Barshai (Brilliant Classics 92205). The best youth orchestras can sometimes make up for what they lack in experience and idiomatic sound with a crisp technical command, a sense of discovery in unfamiliar music and the willingness to do precisely what their conductors tell them to do.  This is some, though by no means all, of what makes the Barshai recording so successful.  But the difference between the Barshai recording and this one by Dudamel lies in the fact that in Barshai you have a man nearly three times Dudamel’s age with a lifetime’s experience of Mahler’s music that really tells, as well as the fact of being a first class orchestral trainer.  Also the Venezuelan orchestra, though good, is not quite as flexible, accomplished or possessed of crucial weight of tone as the one from Germany.  The Barshai recording also has the advantage of never having been released at full price and is now available as a super-bargain.  My use of it here as main reference recording lies principally in the fact of it being, for me, still the best recorded performance available.  But it should also show you that in no way am I necessarily prejudiced against youth orchestras in main repertoire. 

Under Dudamel the first movement has a measured tread in the great funeral march, accentuated in weight just a little, after a tidy fanfare.  Straight away the textures are very polished and clean, even in the trumpet’s muted snarls as the march winds down for the first time.  This polish is a trait that you can hear right through the recording and it puts me in mind of the refinement of a Karajan or an Abaddo.  Mahler’s sound palette is not well-served by such an approach and I hope it is not a bad habit that Dudamel has got into.  The great outburst and surge forward at bar 155 has thrust but ideally it could do with more than this.  The impression is of a sense of proportion being kept which is not what is appropriate here.  At the return of the march I would have liked even more of the feeling of a nineteenth century procession, especially from the percussion who are melded into the texture here a little too tidily.  The solo trumpet work is very impressive, though, with every note clear and the weird harmonies exposed well.  You can hear the counterpoint in this recording which is not something you can say every time.  In the lead up to the final collapse into the coda at the marking “Klagend” the violin dabs are well marked and edgy and the moment itself is well delivered, but it begins its retreat just a little too soon so the effect is deadened somewhat.  Again the impression is of a sense of proportion being kept.  As if Dudamel has a “this far but no further” valve in his head, added to by the now familiar smooth beauty of tone. 

The burst of anger that starts the second movement is excellent, tempo and dynamics perfect for the contrast with the first movement needing to be made.  The more subdued second subject is kept moving along but is held back just enough to tell as contrast again.  There is also considerable care over the dynamics with the pizzicato and high woodwind nattering all well placed.  When the tempo increases again it is with bite and attack and the “monody of cellos” isolated and remote again finds excellent choice of tempo and  lyric expression to fit the whole complex structure.  The second subject material return has an ominous feel that is impressive and appropriate.  Each thread gathered together with impressive effect.  When the storm returns the fury is unleashed with splendid verve and attack though care is taken for every bar and every note to tell.  Barshai is even more abandoned, however.  The heavy brass prior to the arrival of the chorale climax are every bit as meaty as any great orchestra, but the chorale itself does not overwhelm us, which is as it should be.  Only at the end of the symphony should this chorale do that and we will see if Dudamel and his orchestra are up to it when we get there.  The descent to the end of the movement is convincing and notice the superb ensemble of the playing, the strings especially, prior to the final smash.  Though it would be hard for anyone to match the cataclysm that Barshai delivers here.  The lower strings dabbing over the strange fragments of the close are superbly placed and made to tell.  The delivery of this movement, so often the graveyard of performances, is very impressive.  I would have liked a little more abandon in the fast sections to put it up in the Barshai class, but this is a fine performance all the same. 

Up to now Dudamel has shown that he does grasp the basics of this symphony.  How it is ruled by the contrasts of light and dark, tragedy and elation, energy and repose.  So can he convince even further by marking the biggest contrast of all represented by the huge Scherzo with its jocund exuberance and episodes of dance?  There is great bounce shown at the start, “jocose” as the marking has it.  Busy strings and a nice iambic stress on the first note of the four note figure too.  At the first change of tempo Dudamel scales down beautifully for an affectionate slow dance.  The tempo then resumes faster and the orchestra are certainly up to the string runs and the perky contributions from solo winds.  There is also a feeling of flexibility to the rhythms that is not self-indulgent but entirely natural.  The first solo horn entry shows a player of real character too.  The pizzicato section is the intimate night dance passage that it should be and notice the slight hesitancy of the solo clarinet, almost not wanting to break the spell, a lovely touch.  Also again notice how the counterpoint is well balanced to hear every strand.  Flexibility of the sprung rhythms is evident again in the passage that starts the lead up to the dashing passage that contains the wood block - a real smile moment.  In fact Dudamel has something to say in every bar of this extraordinary movement and everything speaks for Mahlers celebration of life.  The final entry of the solo horn is dreamy and romantic with the scurrying strings like so many reflections of the moon through the branches and leaves of a forest cover and hear the pungent quacking of the bassoon as the nocturnal episode comes to a close before the final rush to the end.  A life-enhancing performance of this movement that has charm and beauty, guile and wonderment in every bar and, most important of all, a superb contrast to the storms and stresses and tragedies of the first two, just as Mahler surely intended. 

Dudamel takes a slower, dreamier view of the Adagietto than I prefer.  Effectively he takes what I believe we can call the old-fashioned, traditional Death In Venice route that Mahler did not really mean going by the timings we have of his own performances and those of Walter and Mengelberg who heard him conduct it.  I must admit to being very disappointed at this since Dudamel had shown such awareness of Mahlers inspiration in this symphony up to now.  He cannot quite resist the temptation to emote and linger in the Adagietto.  The strings of the Bolivar Orchestra do not yet have the depth of utterance that one of the great metropolitan orchestras would have had to deliver this kind of performance either.  The slides seem manufactured and, if this is to be the approach adopted, then there needs to be a lot more life experience into the shaping of the great melody.  In short I think this kind of approach to the Adagietto is beyond these young players and the feeling conveyed is more one of stasis when actually it need not have been.  The recording by Frank Shipway is even slower, even dreamier, but the Royal Philharmonic pull if off. 

The woodwind solos at the start of the last movement are ripe and the string runs as the movement gets underway are well drilled.  But when the first quote from the Adagietto arrives, knitting the structure together, Dudamel underlines it by reverting to a slower tempo, presumably in keeping with how he performed it in the movement itself.  For me this has the effect of breaking concentration.  A faster tempo for the Adagietto would have knitted the structure together.  For Dudamel does also take the faster sections of the movement a quite a lick.  The orchestra is up to it but the music is not.  There is a lot more to this movement than a colourful dash and the effect here is of a showpiece for orchestra with much of the earthy quality Mahler imbues, and which other performances manage with a slightly slower tempo choice, missing.  Again Barshai’s more measured tread (a whole two minutes slower) allows for the cheeky rhythms and the fragments of theme and melody to tell greater as also with Schwarz and also Barbirolli at a very slow tempo.  Just prior to the final Adagietto “reference-back” Dudamel slows down considerably more which means he has to then accelerate over a very short time to get back to his fast speed and this really is jarring.  When the great chorale climax arrives it fails to crown the symphony with the heaven storming knockout blaze that can be achieved and which Barshai and his youth orchestra manage with space and range.  Maybe its the orchestras youth or Dudamel’s overall speed, or a bit of both, but there is a feeling of being slightly short-changed at this key moment.  As if the performance that has many good and promising things about it ran out of power and puff at the last. 

The recorded sound delivers a wide dynamic range from the perspective of a seat well back in the hall.  It is, however, very much a studio sound with a generous acoustic that seems to add to the conductor’s concern for beauty of sound and smoothness of texture. 

There is much to admire in this recording, not least the reading of the all-important Scherzo which I found satisfying.  The second movement also receives a performance that more eminent and experienced men have failed to pull off.  Dudamel also grasps the importance of the tripartite structure and the necessity for contrast.  On the downside, however, there are the too smooth and cultured edges of the first movement, a refinement that seems to be an end in itself right through.  Then there is the slow tempo choice of the Adagietto which the players anyway cannot quite rise to.  Finally there is the need for Dudamel to submit his approach to the last movement to more study and work to prevent the stop-go effect which gets more irritating on repeated hearings.  It is a greater movement than it appears here.  In ten years from now, perhaps with one of the great professional orchestras, Dudamel may stun the world with a Mahler Fifth.  Here we have work in progress of a high order but in competition with the best of the past and at full price that is not enough to earn general recommendation from me.  As always with Mahler recordings, the collector is spoiled for choice even between the excellent and any newcomer in the catalogue has a lot to do. 

Tony Duggan 

 

 

 


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