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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 9 in D minor (1908-1909) [86:02]
Los Angeles Philharmonic/Gustavo Dudamel
rec. live, February 2012, Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 479 0924 [45:57 + 40:05]

Gustavo Dudamel certainly polarises critical opinion; some, like me, see a charismatic musician of considerable promise, while others dismiss him as nothing more than a construct of silver-tongued - and possibly cloth-eared - marketing teams. True, some of this maestro’s recorded Mahler - the DG Fifth for instance - is disappointing, but his 2011 Proms Resurrection and his Caracas Eighth (review) are just unforgettable. Perhaps it’s a sense of occasion - and the presence of his Bolivar band - that brings out the best in Dudamel; indeed, anyone who remembers the carnival atmosphere of that 2007 Prom of mainly South American music - reprised in Fiesta - will surely attest to that. I was curious, though, to hear if that same energy and flair manifests itself in his work with other orchestras.
The opening Andante of this Los Angeles Ninth - the culmination of a concentrated cycle of live performances - has a youthful charm, but those who seek a reading of extra reach and substance will be sorely disappointed. There’s a lightness of touch and a transparency of detail that certainly appeals, but it’s apt to sound superficial in this reflective context. The second movement is similarly attractive, but it doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of this multi-layered work. Tempi and phrasing are wilful and the entire movement skates past with little sense of interest or involvement.
Among more recent Mahler Ninths Alan Gilbert’s Stockholm Philharmonic recording for BIS (review) hits hard and digs deep. There’s an urgency, weight and idiomatic ‘sound’ to the Stockholm performance that holds the ear and grips the imagination in a way that Dudamel’s never does. It seems the latter’s view of this terminating symphony is fundamentally misconceived; yes, there are Wunderhorn elements here, but they’re daubs on a broader - and much more equivocal - landscape. It’s all so efficiently executed, and while the engineers capture some ear-pricking detail there’s little here to hold one’s interest, let alone fan the flames of advocacy.
My colleague John Quinn described Dudamel’s Mahler Ninth as a ’work in progress’ (review) which, under the circumstances, is extremely charitable. This is a most perplexing concert, and one that really doesn’t find the maestro at anywhere near his best. Perhaps a surfeit of Mahler in the preceding weeks has left the partnership jaded, which is not where one wants to be when tackling this most challenging score. That said, the Rondo-Burleske has an ameliorating bite and thrust that’s more satisfying, but even then Dudamel fails to bring out the music’s more sardonic side. As for that sudden spurt of energy at movement’s end it’s unpardonably fierce and incoherent.
Even more dispiriting is the soupy Adagio. If this music distils a life lived to the full - regrets and forebodings included - then Dudamel’s performance would suggest one that’s hardly been lived at all. Even the recording - with its absurdly prominent bass drum - fails to convince, the whole enterprise doomed by a distracting sense of artifice. One just has to sample Gilbert or Haitink in the new RCO box of DVDs/Blu-rays to hear how much subtlety and nuance there is in this finely calibrated farewell, and just how seamlessly is should go. Both men give eloquent voice to Mahler’s profoundest thoughts, while Haitink finds a long-breathed, transfiguring beauty in this music that I’ve not encountered in a very long time.
Goodness, this set has really shaken my belief in Dudamel who, I’d wager, is destined for Berlin in 2018. The LA Philharmonic play well enough for him and the recording is adequate - it certainly doesn’t flatter the much-vaunted acoustics of Disney Hall - but then adequate is hardly enough in this ultima Thule of symphonies.
Mahler-lite; a knock-back for Dudamel fans.
Dan Morgan    

See also review by John Quinn

Masterwork Index: Mahler 9