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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 2 in C Minor, ‘Resurrection’ (1888-94) [87:40]
Chen Reiss (soprano)
Tamara Mumford (mezzo-soprano)
Orfeó Català
Palau de la Música Catalana Chamber Choir
Münchner Philharmoniker / Gustavo Dudamel
rec. live, 27 June 2019, Palau de la Música Catalana, Barcelona, Spain
Sound format: PCM Stereo/DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1; Picture format: 1080i 16:9
Subtitles: German (original language), English, French, Spanish, Korean, Japanese
Reviewed in stereo
UNITEL EDITION Blu-ray 802904 [91 mins]

My experiences to date of Gustavo Dudamel in Mahler have been uneven. In February 2012 DG captured on video an overwhelming live performance of the Eighth in which he conducted Venezuelan choirs and the combined forces of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Simón Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela (review). That truly remarkable experience made me keen to hear his audio recording of the Ninth with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, also recorded in February 2012. Alas! That recording struck me as no more than a work-in-progress; he would have been better advised to wait before setting down that profound symphony on disc (review). In 2013 I saw him conduct the challenging Seventh in Birmingham and had mixed feelings, though I subsequently learned that circumstances entirely outside his control might have affected the performance (review).

So, it was with great curiosity that I approached this recent live recording of the ‘Resurrection’ symphony. The performance was given in the Palau de la Música Catalana in Barcelona. I’ve never had the opportunity to visit this hall, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. I learned from the booklet essay, which is rather gushing in places, that the hall was built in the early twentieth century and “features numerous glass and ceramic mosaics and a highly decorative interior that is influenced by the neo-Baroque style”. It is perhaps a pity, that the camera work, which offers a very good view of the performers, didn’t show some detail of the hall itself. When the film started I had the impression that the orchestra looked to be fitted in pretty tightly onto the stage – the choir is placed in balconies high above and behind the orchestra; they are positioned either side of the organ. However, I think the impression of a squash on the platform is a bit of an illusion; during the performance the substantial orchestra didn’t seem too constrained by space.

I was pleased to see that Dudamel divides his violins left and right. The cellos are seated on the left side of the firsts (with the double basses behind them) and the violas occupy the space between the cellos and seconds.

Dudamel, who conducts from memory, paces the big first movement funeral march very well. He gives the slower, nostalgic episodes the necessary space so that the music makes its mark, but I was very pleased to find that he doesn’t overplay his hand in these passages by dragging the music out excessively. He brings out the drama in the music, of course, but the lyrical stretches are equally well done. Dudamel’s vision of the music is admirably translated into reality by the splendid playing of the Munich Philharmonic. I was thoroughly convinced by this rendition and it seems to me that Dudamel doesn’t put a foot wrong.

The two soloists come onto the platform before the second movement. That leads me to think that Dudamel didn’t make the lengthy pause that Mahler requested, unless there’s been some exceptionally unobtrusive editing. The gap between the two movements on this occasion seems to me entirely satisfactory; it’s just long enough to allow for a change of mood but not so long that tension dissipates. Frankly, I think Mahler’s request for a pause of at least five minutes was misjudged.

Once the Andante moderato gets under way it seems to me that Dudamel chooses an ideal core speed, one that lets the music breathe and which conveys its essential spirit. As a result, the relaxed pace brings out the charm and gentle nostalgia, meaning that the movement acts as a foil to the intense drama of the first movement; this was surely exactly what Mahler intended. The various subsidiary tempi within this movement are also shrewdly chosen and relate well to each other. The Scherzo is taken quite swiftly, though not rushed. The sardonic humour is there in plain sight, as it were, and the orchestra points the music delectably – the woodwind are well to the fore in that respect. In this movement, I noticed that, without being at all histrionic, Dudamel’s facial expressions and body language reflect the wit of the music.

‘Urlicht’ is sung by the Canadian mezzo, Tamara Mumford. She impresses in every respect. Her tone is warm, her diction clear and her bearing is restrained, allowing her voice to communicate with the listener without distraction. She sings expressively and with fine control. I liked her performance very much indeed and Dudamel accompanies her vigilantly. Then he unleashes the tumult that is the opening of the finale and immediately we’re transported to a very different world after the tranquillity of ‘Urlicht’.

This account of Mahler’s vast symphonic fresco is impressive by any standards. Dudamel makes imaginative use of the balcony that, unless I’m much mistaken, runs down the length of the hall; his offstage horns are positioned there – I’m less sure where the trumpets and drums are stationed when they play later. All the offstage effects are very well managed indeed – the grosse Appell is expertly handled. The orchestral playing is magnificent throughout. As for Dudamel himself, he is in evident command not only of his substantial forces but also of Mahler’s structure. He leads an intense and gripping performance. It’s often very exciting, but only in the way that Mahler intended; in other words, I don’t believe that Dudamel ever overplays his hand. When the combined choirs make their first hushed entry an ideal balance is achieved between quiet dynamics and clarity. Though the sound of the choirs is atmospheric enough, the half-light in which the singers are illuminated adds to the ambience. The Israeli soprano, Chen Reiss adds her voice to theirs. She sings well, though I have to say that I don’t think she floats these phrases as luminously as several other sopranos that I’ve heard. Later, in the passage that follows ‘O Glaube’, she is a good duet partner with Tamara Mumford, though Ms Mumford is the singer who makes the stronger impression on me – she’s excellent, for example, at ‘O Glaube’.

The closing minutes are memorable. The choirs sing with fervour – their fff reprise of ‘Aufersteh’n’ sets the pulse raising, as it should – and Dudamel urges his players and singers on so that they give their all. The concluding orchestral peroration is suitably majestic. At the end there are plenty of cheers from the Catalan audience, and I’m not surprised; this must have been a pretty overwhelming experience.

This is a very fine performance of the ‘Resurrection’ Symphony. I was very impressed with Gustavo Dudamel’s direction of the symphony. I can honestly say that there was nothing I heard – or saw – in nearly 90 minutes of music-making that caused my eyebrows to rise. In this respect, I think Dudamel has the edge over the Andris Nelsons live recording that I reviewed last year. In most respects, the Nelsons performance was a superb and compelling account but there were a few occasions when I thought he went just a bit too far in his handling of slower episodes; Dudamel, while giving such passages their full value, doesn’t fall into that trap.

Not only is this a memorable performance, it’s also very well presented. The camera work is generally very good and the sound is excellent. I don’t have my TV hooked up to my hi-fi system, though I do have a Cambridge Audio sound bar. However, when I played the audio layer of the disc on a Blu-ray player through my hi-fi, I got an even better result; the sound was very impressive indeed.

John Quinn

Previous review: Robert Cummings

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