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

Experience Classicsonline

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 (review) 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 unimpressed (review). One is tempted to ask if the real Gustavo Dudamel will kindly stand up.
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 was reviewed 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 required.
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!
John Quinn
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