I must confess to some ambivalence about Gustavo Dudamel. When
he first burst on the scene he created a big stir, and understandably
so. His work with what was then the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra
of Venezuela - nowadays known not as a Youth Orchestra but as
a Symphony Orchestra – attracted widespread acclaim, not least
when they took the BBC Proms by storm in 2007 (review),
a concert which I saw – and enjoyed – on television. Subsequently
I was impressed by their recording of Le Sacre du Printemps
but in 2012 I saw on television a live performance in Stirling
by Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar orchestra of the ‘Eroica’ Symphony
as part of the Cultural Olympiad; I felt that while it was well
played Dudamel didn’t really plumb any depths in his reading.
My own mixed experiences – some good things, some less good
– seems to mirror the views of others that I’ve read both on
MusicWeb International and elsewhere and when the reactions
have been critical they’ve tended to focus on a perceived lack
of interpretative depth.
Dudamel has done quite a lot of Mahler in recent years and once
again he has divided opinion. In 2012 he bade farewell to the
Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra with a performance of Mahler’s
Second Symphony that had my Seen and Heard colleague
Niklas Smith reaching for the superlatives (review).
However, when Dudamel had given the same work at the 2011 Proms,
this time with his Venezuelan orchestra, Jim Pritchard was distinctly
One is tempted to ask if the real Gustavo Dudamel will kindly
This new release is not Dudamel’s first foray into Mahler on
disc and his Mahler recordings, none of which I have so far
heard, have also divided opinion. A while ago he recorded the
Fifth Symphony with the Simón Bolívar Orchestra (review)
and just recently a recording of the Eighth has been issued.
On that latter recording Dudamel conducted the combined forces
of the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra and the Los Angeles
Philharmonic Orchestra of which he’s been musical director since
2009. It was Dan Morgan’s enthusiastic welcome for the recording
of the Eighth (review)
that made me think I needed to investigate Dudamel in Mahler.
I don’t know if this recording was drawn from more than one
concert: DG don’t give a precise date. I suspect that it has
been taken either from more than one concert or includes some
patching from rehearsals. I say that because a February 2012
performance of this symphony in Los Angeles by these artists
for Seen and Heard by Laurence Vittes. In his review he mentioned
hearing a cell phone ring during the first movement. I made
a point of listening one extra time to the first movement, using
headphones, and I couldn’t hear that interruption. So, unless
I’ve missed it, some editing has taken place, which is in line
with industry practice – and who wants to hear a cell phone
in a recording? I also learned from Laurence’s review that their
performance of the Ninth was the culmination of the traversal
of all the Mahler symphonies by Dudamel and the LAPO in just
three-and-a-half weeks; that’s some feat of endurance!
This release is billed as Dudamel’s first CD with the Los Angeles
orchestra. I didn’t spot that until near the end of my listening
but it may account for a problem that I have with this release.
For my taste the recorded sound is too close: it’s an up-front
recording. It’s true that this ensures that we hear a lot of
internal detail and that the performance has impact but quite
often the percussion and the string bass lines are more pronounced
than I think is healthy. At times the recording seems rather
brash, especially at the treble end of the spectrum in loud
passages. The brass can sound very bright and prominent. Some
comparisons were required and I thought the fairest thing to
do would be to sample two DG recordings which are from live
recordings, neither of which, as it happens, I’d heard for a
little while. The recordings were both made in the Philharmonie,
Berlin and document performances given by the Berliner Philharmoniker
with Leonard Bernstein in October 1979 – the only occasion on
which he conducted the orchestra – and under Herbert von Karajan
in September 1982. Tony Duggan drew attention to the Bernstein
performance – its strengths and its weaknesses – in his survey
of some of the recordings of this symphony. I wouldn’t challenge
Tony’s strictures about the performance – which was never intended
for perpetuation on disc – but I still find it a tremendous
one-off performance by a great conductor. He and Karajan were
as different as chalk from cheese – which may account for the
fact that Bernstein only appeared once with Karajan’s orchestra
– and their interpretations of the Ninth show that. Karajan’s
is a towering performance. What struck me particularly alongside
Dudamel and Bernstein was how much he achieves despite – even
due to – relative restraint.
However, what I noticed particularly about these two much older
recordings is the aural sense of perspective. It seemed to me
that in both of these recordings the listener is placed say
15 to 20 rows back in the stalls whereas with Dudamel one has
the impression of being in about row five. There may be an issue
too with the respective acoustics – I’ve never been in either
hall – but I wonder if the DG engineers’ lack of experience
in the Walt Disney Concert Hall shows through. By contrast the
acoustics of the Philharmonie would have been much more of a
known quantity – the Bernstein recording was made by RIAS and
subsequently licensed to DG.
I wouldn’t make so much of the recording quality were it not
for the fact that the closeness of the sound does tend to emphasise
a tendency of Dudamel’s to underline points too much. That’s
not the case throughout the symphony but it troubled me at times.
I was pretty impressed with his traversal of the great first
movement. At 29:32 his overall timing tends towards the spacious.
However, this movement is a vast canvass, admitting of many
interpretations. In my collection I have fine performances that
range from under 27 minutes to nearly 30 minutes in duration.
True, he takes longer overall than either Bernstein (27:37)
or Karajan (28:10) but I didn’t feel his reading was unduly
lingering. The opening doesn’t sound as subdued and tentative
as it has in many performances I’ve heard. That may well be
due, at least in part, to the relative closeness of the sound.
In Bernstein’s performance, once we’ve got past some uncertain
tuning in the first couple of bars, there’s more of a sense
of unease and uncertainty. Bernstein builds from these uneasy
beginnings to the emotional impact of the first big climax.
With Karajan the music seems to flow with a little more sweetness.
It seems to me that the first climax arrives more naturally
than in either of the other performances. A little later on
in the Dudamel account (7:07-9:45) I don’t really get as much
sense of foreboding as I should in the sepulchral passage in
which timpani and muted horns are prominent. The trumpets are
too present hereabouts while the loud passage around 12:00 sounds
rather shrill. Overall, Dudamel has the measure of this movement,
I think, and he projects it well – and with sensitivity where
The second movement is not so successful. Here we encounter
Dudamel’s tendency to italicise things – a tendency amplified
by the recording itself. At the very start Dudamel encourages
his strings really to dig in; I rather think the result is too
much of a good thing. To be sure, Dudamel brings out the grotesque
nature of the music but everything is very strongly profiled
and I had the feeling that he’s trying too hard. Turning to
Bernstein – with every comparison I always listened in the same
order: Dudamel, Bernstein, Karajan – we find him appreciably
swifter and lighter. Arguably a Ländler should be somewhat
heavier in gait than Bernstein achieves but by comparison Dudamel
sounds to be wearing heavy boots. Despite his fleet pacing Bernstein
doesn’t miss out on the weight in the music and the movement
has tang and bite – as, to be fair, it does in Dudamel’s hands.
Karajan’s basic speed is closer to Dudamel’s but though he doesn’t
underplay the bite he imparts more grace into the dance, which
I rather like. I preferred the greater sense of space around
the music and the distance from the orchestra that is apparent
in both of the older recordings.
As you might expect, Dudamel gets the wildness that’s inherent
in the Rondo-Burleske. His fiery reading makes the music snarl
and spit. As in the preceding movement, the performance is strongly
profiled but not more so than the music can bear. Bernstein
– equally unsurprisingly – is highly charged and volatile in
his interpretation; indeed, I wouldn’t want to hear his performance
in recorded sound that’s as close as Dudamel’s. Lenny fairly
tears into the music and his viscerally exciting, frenetic performance
offers almost a nightmare vision. The slower music that prefigures
the fourth movement is lingering and emotional in Bernstein’s
hands. This episode (from 6:05) is largely well done by Dudamel
though to my ears the climax of that section (7:47-8:08) sounds
overwrought. When the rondo material returns Dudamel sweeps
the movement at gale force to its conclusion. What of Karajan?
He’s also wild in the rondo music yet things always sound controlled;
the music is kept on the leash and, arguably, that’s no bad
thing if it isn’t to tip over the edge. When the slower, nostalgic
episode arrives Karajan is more objective than his two rivals.
The feeling is there all right but I find his restraint is effective.
With the finale reservations resurface about Dudamel’s underlining
of points. This is an unusually intense movement but even so
I get the feeling with Dudamel, perhaps unfairly, that there’s
‘Significance’ in every bar and that details such as the frequent
appearance of the little turn phrase are magnified. At 4:21
the contrabassoon steals in under glacially quiet violins. When
I first listened I wrote in my notes that this was too slow
and feels ponderous. Well, I was wrong, at least as regards
the first half of that judgement, for further listening established
that Dudamel does indeed take the passage at his initial tempo
– or close to it – which is as marked and his pace is similar
to that of Bernstein and Karajan. However, I still think it
feels too slow and I continue to believe there’s a
ponderous element about it and that’s all to do with how the
music is phrased and conducted. In the quiet, still passage
that leads up to the main climax (10:46 – 15:40) Dudamel dares
to be expansive and he’s successful, the music well controlled.
However, in the pages that follow the climax (17:22-18:11),
in which the horns sing out in descant to the strings, I was
rather surprised that the music seems to lack sufficient forward
momentum and so a sense of exaltation is missing. At 22:11 a
deeply poignant viola solo leads us into the closing pages and
from here to the end Dudamel manages this difficult, exposed
music with becoming sensitivity. Bernstein likewise invests
the last movement with great feeling but, once again, the more
natural concert hall balance is preferable – and it doesn’t
lessen the impact of his reading. He, too, offers a very intense
experience but I find him somewhat more persuasive than Dudamel.
Karajan’s performance, founded on peerless string tone from
the Berliners, is patrician. He finds the true depth in this
movement and he maintains his magisterial control even when
Mahler raises the emotional temperature.
Overall, while there are many good things in Dudamel’s Mahler
Ninth I can’t escape the feeling that this is work in progress.
He is quoted on the jewel case as saying that he waited a long
time to conduct the symphony: he had just turned 31 when this
performance took place. I certainly wouldn’t suggest that he
was too young to essay it but I do wonder if he was wise to
commit his interpretation to disc just yet. I’m sure that as
his experience of Mahler expands and deepens over the years
he will bring more to this score in the future just as I agree
with Tony Duggan’s verdict
that Simon Rattle’s 2007 Berlin recording of the Ninth represents
a significant advance on his 1993 Vienna reading. This present
Dudamel account is worth hearing but I don’t believe it challenges
the best in a field where competition is white hot. I would
also respectfully suggest that DG might review their approach
to engineering in the Walt Disney Concert Hall before recording
Dudamel and the LAPO there again.
The documentation consists of a short but useful essay by Julian
Johnson but doing the comparisons brought home to me how DG’s
presentational standards have changed. I own the original CD
issues of both the Bernstein and Karajan recordings. DG present
each movement of Dudamel’s performance as a single track which,
to be fair, is what most companies do. However, in both of the
earlier recordings they split each movement into several tracks
and the track-listings in the booklets include the bar number,
page number in the score and the tempo marking at each track
point. That’s presentation for you!