This is a difficult
disc to review. Firstly there is Dudamel. DG’s marketing team
have really gone to town with him, and Los Angeles has snapped
him up as chief conductor. Simon Rattle has even gone so far
as to describe him as ‘the most astonishingly gifted conductor
that he has ever met’. When a feature about him appeared in
The Observer Magazine (29 July 2007), the cover headline
read ‘Lightning Conductor’. A few years back Gramophone
used the same heading to advertise a feature on Leonard Bernstein.
Clearly any recording by Dudamel is going to attract a lot of
attention. Young conductors are very much in vogue at the moment;
Alan Gilbert has recently been appointed music director in New
York, and Birmingham is currently abuzz with the news that the
(hitherto) unknown Andris Nelsons (28) has been named as Sakari
Then there is the
Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela. Or, in fact - and
I thank David Hurwitz of Classics Today for bringing
this to my attention - Orquesta Sinfónica Simón Bolívar de Venezuela.
Much of the media frenzy surrounding this partnership has centred
around the relative youth of both conductor (26) and orchestra.
The truth is, as you may gather from their proper Spanish-language
title, that the orchestra is not technically a youth orchestra.
Yes, it consists largely of young players but it is also bolstered
by teachers and professionals. That it is the product of what
appears to be an exemplary Venezuelan music project is admirable.
However I would certainly be less cynical about DG’s artistic
integrity if they put money to mouth and employed a - no doubt
much more expensive - professional orchestra for their new star’s
recordings. Having both an exciting, youthful, conductor with
an orchestra with a sob story - and a relatively inexpensive
fee - is most likely a more enticing financial proposition for
And finally there
is the repertoire that Dudamel is being encouraged to record.
DG really appears to like the coupling of Beethoven’s Fifth
and Seventh Symphonies. Yes, they struck gold in
the digital age by coupling Carlos Kleiber’s legendary accounts
of those works. But eyebrows were certainly raised when they
recorded the same repertoire with Thielemann in 1997. That recording
was not particularly well received, neither was Dudamel’s recent
traversal of the same repertoire. The younger conductor did,
however, demonstrate enormous potential and awakened us to the
qualities of his ‘youth’ orchestra. The Seventh made
up for the lacklustre and entirely unnecessary Fifth;
even there, though, Dudamel’s apparent desire to display his
orchestra’s virtuosity resulted in a finale that was so fast
as to completely rob the music of a sense of underlying harmonic
tension. This all contrasts with the rather studied caution
of Rattle in his early years; that Sir Simon is one of the few
young firebrands whose career trajectory has consistently risen
should be a warning to Dudamel. Let us hope that he makes some
wiser choices from now on.
I should say at
this point that Dudamel’s Mahler Five is not going to
enter the realms of great Mahler recordings. I anticipate that
as soon as the Dudamel furore has receded, DG will promptly
withdraw it from circulation. After all, they should probably
concentrate on resuscitating their vast (currently unavailable)
number of recordings by conductors such as Bernstein and Levine.
I have also recently had the unalloyed pleasure of hearing Mahler
by some of the great Mahler conductors: Tennstedt live in numbers
Five and Seven, Haitink’s fabled Kerstmatinees,
Walter’s (now) controversial Das Lied with Ferrier and
Patzak, Levine in number Five.
All of these recent
purchases demonstrate excellent Mahler interpretations. The catalogue
is saturated with such readings, and so any newcomer must have
something individual to say. Recent years have not really produced
any particularly recommendable Fifths. I would probably single
out Barshai’s live recording with the Junge Deutsche Philharmonie
(a ‘real’ youth orchestra, albeit one with predominantly privileged
members), although I am not as enthusiastic about it as many (see
reviews by Tony Duggan here
Rattle’s recording is probably the least convincing performance
in his rather uneven cycle (review).
I have often wondered why so many otherwise excellent Mahler
conductors deliver unsatisfactory performances of this particular
symphony. Haitink has recorded it at least four times, largely
without success. Karajan’s recording was dreadful, Barbirolli’s
- contrary to received wisdom, and coming from a huge Barbirolli
fan - somewhat tired sounding. Klemperer never even recorded it,
as I believe is the case with Horenstein. It was also, alongside
the Eighth, the weakest of the Boulez cycle (review).
As luck would have it, Tennstedt excelled in both, as did Bernstein.
The problem is that
these two symphonies represent Mahler at his most romantic.
Rattle, in particular, avoided the Eighth for several
years, devolving responsibilities for any Birmingham performances
to Simon Halsey. Ditto the Fifth, which he performed
for the first time during his last season with the CBSO and
at a later Proms concert; all performances were greeted by an
unusual level of vitriol by the critics. But Rattle’s recording
of the Eighth is good; the particular brand of Romanticism
present in that work is of a universal nature. Notions of both
religious faith and the redeeming nature of feminine love (courtesy
of Goethe) appeal to human nature as an entirety rather than
to specific cultural cells.
operates somewhat differently. Occupying centre-stage in terms
of Mahler’s symphonic order, it represents a transition between
the early ‘Wunderhorn’ works and the more severe, trenchantly
scored later works. I have talked of this symphony being ‘Romantic’;
that is not to imply a kind of Straussian voluptuousness, but
rather an aching nostalgia unlike any other work I have encountered.
So much of this symphony is redolent of its time; the darkest
possible coffee to wash down the most deliciously decadent cake
in a swish hotel whilst conversing about Freud … all with a
fine cigar. But the internal conflicts and tensions in the work
suggest Mahler yearning for the more simple forms of musical
expression from a bygone age. Not for nothing was his next symphony
to be his most ‘classical’ - in structure at least.
Thus it is that
so few conductors outside the central European tradition conduct
this music well. Dudamel doesn’t even penetrate the surface,
and it is disheartening to hear these levels of orchestral virtuosity
allied with such musical misunderstanding. The musicians have
done well to produce polished results having risen from the
slums of Venezuela; unfortunately those slums are a long, long
way from fin de siècle Vienna.
The opening Trauermarsch
begins very well indeed. Rhythms are taut and precise, the trumpet
solo projected incisively and without the grand-standing rhetoric
to be found in some other performances. Dudamel’s attention
to detail is there, not just in the sense of dynamics, but also
in rhythmic durations. On very few other recordings do you actually
here the difference between the trumpet’s minims against the
orchestras crotchet in the declamatory triplet passage shortly
after the initial tutti. This is indicative of Dudamel’s
approach as a whole, and he is particularly good in the two
opening movements. Indeed, many conductors appear more comfortable
with the brooding tragedy of the first part of this symphony
than in the more jovial and optimistic later parts.
What I did miss
in Dudamel’s reading were the more localised features of Mahler’s
musical language; this is a funeral march, and the composer
goes to great lengths in his use of brass and percussion to
suggest the flavour of a marching band in the more subdued sections
of this movement. I’m not sure that Dudamel thinks of this as
a priority, and the movement loses something in tragic weight
without considering this. Dudamel also achieves some exceptionally
quiet playing, particularly from the strings, yet this is not
the kind of pianissimo that truly speaks. The result
- particularly given the conductor’s tendency to slow down for
quieter passages - is a dangerous lack of tension.
At the first Trio,
Dudamel launches his orchestra into the stratosphere. ‘Wild’
this certainly is, with magnificently articulate playing from
all sections of the orchestra. Yet even here, the effect is
not nearly as exciting as it can be. In order to emphasise virtuosity
and clarity - balances are extraordinarily clear here - Dudamel
sacrifices weight of tone. Fast it may be, but the actual sound
of the performance here is at odds with Mahler’s intentions.
For all the manic virtuosity the result is a little too cultured.
Roughly the same
comments can be made about the second movement; the more ‘vehement’
sections are exceptionally well played - some particularly exciting
brass playing. The more ruminative sections are rather staid.
Unfortunately the approach is less successful here. This is
one of the most difficult Mahler movements to pull off. It is
true that it is structured around extreme contrasts, and Dudamel
certainly appreciates that. Yet the matter is not quite so simple.
Part of the structural novelty of these paired opening movements
is that, whilst the second movement introduces new materials
for its more violent episodes, the contrasting episodes are
intrusions from the opening Trauermarsch. If the structure
is to work, the tempo relationship between the two contrasting
thematic groups has to be balanced precisely by the conductor;
nothing can be left to chance. Part of Dudamel’s charm lies
in his spontaneity; unfortunately his grasp of the unique structure
of the movement suffers. Conductors such as Tennstedt could
be spontaneous whilst at the same time keeping a tight rein
on the structural aspects … although not always, as can be heard
in a recent BBC release of Mahler’s Seventh.
second movement is continuously impressive in its louder, faster
moments, but gradually loses its way. In a good performance,
the sudden appearance of the D major chorale towards the end
- the only possible way in which to exit the seemingly endless
cycle of contrasting thematic groups - still seems incongruous;
more so here. However, once that passage of release is reached,
Dudamel paces it to perfection, rounding off the movement spectacularly
I mentioned earlier
a lack of attention to the more localised aspect of Mahler’s
style in this recording. Unfortunately, such elements are vital
in the epic Scherzo. Neither Dudamel nor his players
really seem to be inside this movement, and the winds in particular
begin to sound rather bland here. Pacing is sound and Dudamel
certainly conveys some of the exuberance of this movement. But
those heart-stopping moments of stasis so pivotal to this vast
structure are curiously unatmospheric, and the more lilting,
nostalgic passages are once again marked by a drop in tension.
The famous Adagietto
has, in recent years, been the subject of a kind of ‘ten-minute
rule’; in other words, performances that reach beyond that duration
are generally dismissed. I have nothing against Dudamel’s 10:46
in principle, but without the innate understanding of style
that allows Bernstein to sustain a time-span exceeding this
marker, the music simply fails to involve. Here, as in the opening
movements, Dudamel and his players achieve some extremely quiet
playing but it simply fails to sing. The lack of tone, and of
a consistent sense of line, are deadly. As a concession to Mahlerian
style, portamenti are tastefully applied. But these seem
to be informed simply by the knowledge of how to apply
them rather than why.
About the concluding
Rondo-Finale I will say at once that it is extremely
exciting. So much detail is lost, however, and the structure
of this movement with its reminiscences from previous movements
- often drastically transformed in character - is rendered nonsensical.
It emerges as a rather insubstantial movement, the proverbial
storm in a tea cup. Whilst Dudamel paces the emergence of the
chorale in the second movement unerringly, he rides roughshod
over the same material here, resulting in a rather perfunctory
All, in all, this
is an ill-considered reading of a work that appears to be important
to Dudamel. Given time I have no doubt that he could produce winning
performances of this symphony. If he were to spend a long period
of time with an orchestra with a tradition of Mahler then some
of the stylistic inconsistencies would most likely be ironed out.
As it stands, this is an issue for completists - Dudamel completists
- or those who, understandably, have been seduced by the heart-warming
story of one country’s enlightened and model approach to music
Owen E. Walton
see also Review
by Tony Duggan