Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)
Pictures at an Exhibition (orch. Ravel) [31:38]
Night on Bare Mountain [11:22]
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Swan Lake – Waltz (7:00)
Wiener Philharmoniker/Gustavo Dudamel
rec. April 2016, Großer Saal, Musikverein, Vienna
Reviewed as a 24/96 download
Pdf booklet included
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 479 6297 [50:00]

I have a love-hate relationship with Gustavo Dudamel. I’ll never forget his Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra concert at the 2007 BBC Proms, an exuberant evening that had normally staid Londoners dancing in the aisles. In 2008 that programme was reprised in the equally enjoyable Fiesta! Since then it’s been hit and miss; the Dude’s Stravinsky/Revueltas belongs in the first category, his Richard Strauss and much of his Mahler in the second. The notable exception is a blazing Symphony of a Thousand from Caracas; indeed, it was one of my Recordings of the Year in 2012. More recently his otherwise thrilling Wagner was ruined by a truly awful Tristan Prelude.

So, where does this new album belong? First impressions are ominous, with a frankly pedestrian first Promenade and an anodyne account of Gnomus. In fact it all sounds terribly routine; even the fabled Viennese seem thoroughly disengaged. I say fabled, but the playing is scrappy and the narrow soundstage and suffocating balances don’t help. In fact I recoiled from DG’s brash presentation, offering a silent – and heartfelt –    thank you to the smaller, more discerning labels who regularly produce recordings of astonishing refinement, fidelity and presence.

There are moments when the performance threatens to improve – the instrumental interplay in The Old Castle is nicely done – but thereafter it veers between the blindingly dull and the grindingly awful. I thought the recent Gergiev and Jansons were grim, but Dudamel’s gallery is hung with desultory daubs, devoid of all colour and impact. Just compare his tepid version of The Hut on Fowl’s Legs with that of the always thrilling Eduardo Mata (Sony/RCA) or the seismic Lorin Maazel (Telarc). As for the Venezuelan’s Great Gate of Kiev it barely registers on any scale at all.

But what about the fillers, Night on a Bare Mountain and an orphaned Waltz from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake? The first is a logical coupling, the second surely a last-minute tack-on. Dudamel hurtles through the Mussorgsky – his garbled reading well matched by the close, uncouth recording – and the Tchaikovsky is just fat and vulgar. Goodness, have the WP ever been so unflatteringly caught, their unique sound so cruelly suppressed? One only has to sample their playing on Dacapo’s superbly recorded Nørgård symphonies – one of my picks for 2014 – to realise how good they really are, and how dismal DG’s engineering really is.

If you really must have Dudamel in Pictures his Salzburg DVD with the SBYO has all the ‘colour and flamboyance’ this newcomer lacks (review). Oddly enough DG videos tend to be well reengineered – that Caracas Mahler is a case in point – but this all-Russian album confirms just how mediocre their CDs have become. Perhaps it’s a question of changing priorities. Take Simon Rattle’s deluxe, multi-platform Sibelius for instance, which strikes me as the record-collecting equivalent of a coffee-table book; it looks impressive, but it’s seldom perused or played. In short, the yellow cartouche – once a beacon of quality – has lost its shine.

The Dude’s biggest flop so far; an embarrassment all round.

Dan Morgan

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