I was mightily impressed when this young orchestra and conductor
appeared at the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts in 2007, playing
Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony and music from the Americas (review).
However, I’m one of those people who is instinctively suspicious
of ‘hype’ – or what might be ‘hype’ – and some of the adulatory
press coverage these musicians have since received has made
me thoughtful. So I was more than a little intrigued by the
prospect of this CD.
As it so happened, just a few days before receiving it I’d written
a review of a 1929 recording of Le Sacre by Pierre Monteux
– one of the very first recordings made of the piece – and in
the course of it I commented that Monteux’s professional musicians
audibly struggled with what was then very new music whereas
nowadays it’s not at all unusual to hear youth orchestras performing
the piece “with panache and even insouciance”. That comment
remains true, I think, except that now I must qualify it by
adding that very few youth orchestras could play Le Sacre
This is, by any standards, a remarkable performance of Stravinsky’s
ground breaking masterpiece. In the course of this review I’m
probably going to comment on a number of spectacular moments
in the performance so let me say at the outset that one of the
most noteworthy features of it is the way in which the quiet,
subtle passages are delivered. So, for example, the playing
in the Introduction to Part Two (track 9) is as delicate and
demonstrates as much finesse as one would expect in a performance
of, say, Debussy or Ravel – the muted trumpets are really rather
special. The finesse is equally evident in the following section,
‘Cercles mystérieux des adolescentes’ (track 10) and earlier,
in Part One, ‘Adoration de la terre – Le Sage’ (track 7) is
amazingly hushed and mysterious.
But above all it’s the sheer physicality of this performance
that grips the listener. In the booklet Dudamel says of his
players “this orchestra simply has rhythm in its blood”, and
he’s right. Throughout the work the playing has pin-point accuracy
and the rhythms are always razor-sharp. In this connection,
note, for example, the incisive horns and timpani in ‘Jeu de
rapt’ (track 3). The power of the playing is quite exceptional.
True, there are one or two instances where I thought the response
was just a shade too zealous – the bass drum is on the dominant
side in the hammered crotchets that begin ‘Glorification de
l’élue’ (track 11) – but, overall the control that Dudamel exerts
is very impressive.
He clearly has the score at his fingertips. I thought that his
tempo for ‘Rondes printanières’ (track 4) was a shade too deliberate
– though by no means slack – but on the other hand, the great
fff eruptions later in that same section, founded on
thunderous low drums and tam-tam, sound implacable at this speed
and, in the true sense of the word, awesome. When required Dudamel
gets a whiplash attack from his players – ‘Danse de la terre’
(track 8) is frenetic – and several times he unleashes brazen
power, as, for example, in ‘Cortège du sage’ (track 6), where
the baleful brass and menacing percussion are terrifyingly imposing.
Above all, this performance has tension right from the opening
bassoon solo through to the barbaric power displayed in ‘Danse
sacrale’ at the end It’s a truly thrilling performance and the
one thing that surprised me was that there was no applause at
the end – the Revueltas piece is applauded. It’s the
sort of performance of Le Sacre that would bring the
house down in the concert hall, and justifiably so. The catalogue
boasts many fine recordings of Le Sacre but this one
can certainly take its place alongside the very best.
The coupling is novel, intriguing and highly appropriate. The
music of the Mexican composer, Silvestre Revueltas, will probably
be unfamiliar to many people, as it was to me. Gustavo Dudamel
says that La noche de los mayas (‘Night of the Maya’)
“fits perfectly with Stravinsky’s ballet music because it also
revolves around rituals, dances and sacrificial acts”. I can
only say that the coupling is inspired. The score was originally
composed for a 1939 film. It’s unclear if the score as recorded
here is a four-movement suite drawn from the film music but
according to the booklet the piece was first performed in 1960,
some twenty years after the composer’s death. Paul Griffiths,
writing elsewhere, has labelled it a “neo-primitive blockbuster”.
That’s a very apt description but I’d take issue with it very
slightly as it may mislead the reader by overlooking the several
gentle sections in the work. And as was the case with Le
Sacre, Dudamel and his players are just as impressive
in the quieter passages as they are in the high-octane stretches
The first movement, which carries the same title as the whole
work, begins with monumental music of dark, frightening power.
Percussion and brass are very much to the fore here. But within
a couple of minutes this has given way to a more calm passage
in which strings and woodwind predominate. And in fact it’s
this quieter material, which sometimes takes on a mysterious,
nocturnal character, that occupies most of the movement until
at 6:15 the potent opening music returns for the last minute
and a half or so of the duration of the piece.
The second movement, entitled ‘Noche de jaranas’ (‘Night of
revelry’) is vivacious and light on its feet. In fact, it’s
Fiesta time. The music never slows – indeed, if anything it
gathers pace – and it displays irresistible energy and brio.
The rhythms are irregular and catchy and are spring superbly
by these young players. After all this merriment the third movement,
‘Noche de Yucatán’ (‘Yucatán Night’) offers not just repose
but also great beauty. This is a gorgeous nocturne, played out,
one could readily imagine, below an ink-blue, cloudless ad starlit
sky. The playing is absolutely beautiful – in particular there’s
some super-fine soft string playing around 6:00.
Then, without a break, we’re plunged into ‘Noche de encantamiento’
(‘Night of Enchantment’). This, the longest of the movements,
lasting nearly ten minutes, is simply stunning. The percussion
section, clearly crammed full of all manner of exotic instruments,
strikes up at 1:03 and, to the best of my recollection, are
an ever-present force for the rest of the piece. At one point
(2:02-3:41) they take centre stage, while the rest of the orchestra
falls silent, to deliver an extended improvisatory passage,
which is thrilling. The rhythms and the use of percussion –
and, indeed, of other orchestral colouring – in this finale
is quite intoxicating and I would guess that the Venezuelans
are having huge fun – but very disciplined and focused fun.
As the movement progresses so does the tension and the excitement
mount and the final section (from 8:27), which is marked con
violencia is delivered with swaggering power. At the end
the audience erupts and I’m not surprised.
These are both live recordings, although the audience is commendably
silent until the end of the Revueltas. Obviously, I don’t know
how much editing has been done but both performances have the
feel of single ‘takes’. Though the orchestra’s playing is impressive
enough anyway, it helps that DG has recorded them in superb
sound. The recording has great impact but, additionally, the
quiet passages register really impressively and a huge amount
of inner detail is readily audible without any artificial enhancement
– mind you, that’s a tribute to Dudamel’s skill also.
How marvellous it is to hear accurate, uninhibited performances
of hugely demanding music by young musicians, whose enthusiasm
is as palpable as their technical accomplishment. Truly, the
musical education programme, “El Sistema”, at the pinnacle of
which sits the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra, is a remarkable
thing if it can produce musicians of this calibre.
Among the many fine CDs that are released each year only a handful
really have the ‘Wow!” factor. This is one such disc.
See also review
by Dan Morgan