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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No.5 (1901-1902)
Orquesta Sinfónica Simón Bolívar de Venezuela/Gustavo Dudamel
rec. Caracas, Ciudad Universitaria, Aula Magna, February 2006. DDD

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 Oramo’s successor.

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 the label.

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 and 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.

The Fifth 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.

Instead, Dudamel’s 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 well.

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 apotheosis.

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 and youth.

Owen E. Walton

see also Review by Tony Duggan




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