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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Die Walküre - Ride of the Valkyries (1856) [5:20]
Das Rheingold - Entrance of the Gods into Valhalla (1854) [8:43]
Siegfried – Forest Murmurs (1871) [9:05]
Götterdämmerung - Siegfried’s Rhine Journey (1871-1874) [14:38]
Gotterdämmerung - Siegfried’s Funeral Music [8:39]
Tristan und Isolde - Prelude (1857-1859) [19:30]
Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela/Gustavo Dudamel
rec. live, October 2014, Centro de Acción Social por la Música, Sala Simón Bolivar, Caracas, Venezuela
Reviewed as a 24/48 download from Qobuz
Pdf booklet included

Qobuz offered the first five tracks of this album free when they launched their Spanish site in January 2015. The paid-for ‘Deluxe Extended Version’ – a touch of hyperbole there – includes the Prelude from Tristan. Interestingly this is not a Deutsche Grammophon release, as Gustavo Dudamel’s other recordings have been, but is produced by him and Fidelio Arts. At the time of writing – early January – Amazon had listed the mp3 version for pre-order; there’s no sign of a CD at this stage, but then the recent launch of the Naxos HD streaming/download service suggests the recorded music industry could be in for a radical realignment this year. Physical discs may not be part of that brave new world, but I suspect this Wagner concert might appear on video at some point.

Ever since I first heard the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra at the 2007 BBC Proms I've been one of their most loyal followers. That intoxicating programme was subsequently reprised in Fiesta!, which was one of my Recordings of the Year for 2008. Their later Stravinsky/Revueltas disc was pretty impressive too. They’ve grown up since then, and have jettisoned the Youth part of their title. As for Gustavo ‘The Dude’ Dudamel he’s also grown in stature, and is my tip to succeed Simon Rattle as principal conductor of the Berliner Philharmoniker in 2018.

Dudamel hasn't been terribly consistent of late, but I was still delighted at the prospect of hearing him conduct the Bolívars in this all-Wagner programme. One only has to see these Venezuelans in action to realise what a remarkable team they make; indeed, their Mahler Resurrection at the 2011 Proms remains one of the most overwhelming performances of the piece that I’ve ever experienced, and their Caracas Mahler 8 – which includes the LA Philharmonic – is a splendid achievement too. Dudamel’s audio-only Mahler has been far less successful – his Seventh must be one of the most perplexing, ill-conceived accounts of the work on record – but in spite of that I still believe the best is yet to come.

I’m a sucker for these Wagner excerpts, and have long cherished the George Szell/Cleveland set from the 1960s (CBS/Sony) and Klaus Tennstedt’s two compilations (EMI/Warner and the LPO label). I also have very fond memories of an Antal Doráti cassette, which was probably my introduction to this music. Szell and Tennstedt have first-rate orchestras at their fingertips, yet there are times – with Szell especially – when the performances are a little too streamlined for my tastes; that said, the latter set sounds remarkably good for its age. Regrettably the EMI/Warner recordings for Tennstedt and the Berliners are close and tinder dry, so Wagner’s climactic moments don’t always come across too well.

Dudamel and the SBO's Wagner, recorded live in Caracas in 2014, laid the groundwork for their European tour, which kicked off with sell-out concerts at London's Festival Hall in January. The download plays for just over an hour; Qobuz are charging around Ł8 for these 24/48 files, which strikes me as very good value. But what of the performances? Well, this rendition of the Ride of the Valkyries is a knockout; indeed, the vital, vaunting Bolívars bring much-needed gallop and go to those weary old war horses. I was particularly impressed by the full-bodied yet airy sound, which handles detail and weight with authority and aplomb.

Drama is what Dudamel does best, as that live Mahler 2 and 8 so amply demonstrate, and that augurs well for this collection. If anything The Entry of the Gods into Valhalla is even more thrilling; sonorous brass, haloed percussion and a wonderful sense of nobility makes this a truly memorable performance. Weight, scale, thrust – not to mention a fine instrumental blend and very secure intonation – it’s all there. As for the recording it’s one of the most satisfying I’ve heard in a while; it sounds natural, well balanced and civilised at the frequency extremes, which is not a given with The Dude’s DG recordings. The closing pages will take your breath away, such is the orchestra's formidable amplitude and attack.

Still reeling from that – I listened to it several times in quick succession – I was grateful for the arboreal calm of Forest Murmurs. This too is a gorgeous performance, full of nuance and alluring detail; at times it speaks more of the lushness beneath the jungle canopy than of the gentle susurrations of European woodland, yet the generosity and sheer loveliness of the playing is what really counts. The strings have just the right sense of wonder, and the woodwinds are all-aquiver with joyful anticipation. In short, this is a full-throated reading of a piece that can so easily seem a little bland.

Siegfried’s Rhine Journey and Funeral Music find the Bolívars at their majestic, dark-toned best. Dudamel paces the music well and coaxes ravishing sounds from the brass and woodwinds along the way. What always strikes me so forcibly when I hear these players is the commingling of youthful vigour and high seriousness; the Bolívars play as if it really matters, and in an age awash with ennui that’s a very precious talent. Dudamel builds climaxes with an intuitive skill and a sense of style that I haven’t heard from him in ages. And while the Bolívars can play very loud they’re suitably subdued in the slow-wending Funeral Music. The taut, atmospheric timps deserve special mention here.

The deep, wide soundstage is a blessing, for it helps to conjure a powerful image of the substantial forces ranged before us; the ear is easily drawn to the harmonic epiphanies that rise up from the mix as if from beneath Bayreuth’s hallowed stage. The SBO aren’t the Berlin Phil or the LPO, but there’s no doubt these Ring excerpts have been very well prepared and executed. I can’t say the same about the Prelude from Tristan; if the first five tracks are polished and passionate the sixth is rough and wayward. The pre-release booklet doesn’t even list this item, whose unexpected crudities blight an otherwise enjoyable programme. There’s plenty of body here, but very little soul or sense of what the music is actually about. The audience is inaudible and there’s no applause.

I don’t want to end on an equivocal note, for the SBO's Ring excerpts are well worth hearing. I suggest you just download those, then crank up the volume, sit back and be thrilled to bits. There’s a rather scrappy, garish booklet, but then this is just the first of Dudamel's own productions; perhaps future efforts will be more informative and appealing.

The Bolívars are superb in the Ring excerpts; their Tristan is still a work in progress.

Dan Morgan