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Mahler: Symphony No 5 / Dudamel, Bolívar Youth Orchestra

Release Date: 10/09/2007 
Label:  Deutsche Grammophon   Catalog #: 000983702   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Gustav Mahler
Conductor:  Gustavo Dudamel
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 9 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

MAHLER Symphony No. 5 Gustavo Dudamel, cond; Simon Bolivar Youth O DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 000983702 (69:25)

At this point in time, it’s a bit hard to separate substance from celebrity when writing about conductor Gustavo Dudamel. His exclusive DG discography comprises the first SBYO CD of the Fifth and Seventh Symphonies of Beethoven, a download-only performance (with the Los Angeles Philharmonic) of Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra (which I haven’t heard), and now this new CD of another famous Fifth, one Read more almost as oft-recorded as the Beethoven. No one could accuse this young man of shying away from competition, even from such established predecessors (and DG stalwarts) as Kleiber, Karajan, and Bernstein (not to mention the latter two plus Kubelík, Abbado, Sinopoli, and Boulez in the Mahler).

The Beethoven disc was reviewed by James Reel and me in 30:2. My colleague was somewhat less negative than I, though he concluded that “there’s more to be found in this music than Dudamel and his orchestra uncover.” (Amen to that.) He hoped to hear “less common fare” from this team, suggesting that these young musicians showed “promise and skill” in the performances. Though neither the Bartók nor the Mahler can be considered “less common fare,” I concur with Reel’s enthusiastic endorsement of the performers; this chance to revisit Dudamel and his impressive young compatriots, therefore, was most welcome.

The opening trumpet signal and orchestra fanfare are characterized by an austerity and control that command attention; the tam-tam provides a welcome touch of mystery. The funeral march is remarkable for its subdued understatement and martial discipline; reduced to chamber-orchestra scale, the strings lead the march, accompanied by precise, sharp punctuations from the brass and percussion—light years away from both the self-conscious monumentalism of Chailly (Decca) and the heavy-handed exaggeration of Bernstein (DG). The whole effect is of emotions held in check, of determination in the grip of adversity. The sudden eruption ( Plötzlich schneller ), violins again very much in the vanguard, becomes an essay in counterpoint between the strings on the one hand and the brass (especially the trumpet) with percussion on the other: emotions suddenly break free, then are just as quickly mastered, culminating in the chorale, which is almost an apology. The march is resumed, subdued but bemused, as though still recovering from the shock of the previous outburst.

Donald Mitchell writes of Mahler’s invention of the Kammermusikton , a sharpening of focus and reduction in scale in his orchestration that emerged with the Kindertotenlieder , and Dudamel’s first movement might have been recorded to provide an illustration. It is exceedingly rare for this music to receive such attention to orchestral detailing and delineation of counterpoint—only Benjamin Zander’s extraordinary recording on Telarc comes to mind; the difference here is the consequent scaling-down of the emotional element—this is really quite striking. If one accepts Mitchell’s (and Adorno’s) characterization of the first movement as one long exposition—the first subject in Mahler’s Erste Abteilung —this performance makes even more sense: Dudamel thoroughly explores Mahler’s unique vision of the funeral march.

Where the first movement is introverted, the second is all agitation and frenzied momentum ( Mit grösster Vehemenz indeed), though the furious opening subsequently undergoes some moderation. The principal theme echoes the subdued funeral march, the strings once again prominent, clucking winds providing commentary. With the return to the opening theme, the precision of the orchestra at this tempo is admirable. The mournful cello cantilena is starkly effective against the timpani pedal. The transition to the major mode offers a glimmer of sunshine, ushering in the jaunty interlude that takes the momentum of the first theme to a deceptive climax, then to the collapse and back to the agitation of the opening. The brass chorale and prolonged major-mode episode that ends what serves as an extended development section is like a doomed promise of future happiness, soon dashed by the last echo of the opening agitation. The dissolution of the coda is indeed grim.

The jaunty tempo of the Scherzo dispels the gloom, and the solo horn (uncredited—the supplied list of instrumentalists is quite democratic) is accorded due prominence. Orchestral detailing is similar to the first movement, as precise dabs of instrumental color paint the string-laid background canvas. The two Trios (and their varied repeats) are lazily indulgent. This Scherzo borrows the energy of the second movement, flexing its muscles, even summoning storm clouds in the minor-mode episodes. The irrepressible geniality re-emerges in playing that seems to revel in its own power and persuasiveness, but that is never one-dimensional: all of Mahler’s varied moods are here.

Violins sound almost tentative against the prominent harp and basses as the Adagietto opens. The richness of the sound complements the warmth of the strings. Dudamel’s is an expansive interpretation of this movement, which is unfortunate. As with recent Fifths from Michael Tilson Thomas and James DePreist, the commitment of these players is undeniable; however, no amount of sincerity can compensate for the distortion to the overall structure that such an exaggerated tempo invariably introduces.

Dudamel’s conception of the finale, as quoted in the booklet note, is one of hope: where the second movement offered a tantalizing glimpse, and the Scherzo offers joy, true hope is at last obtained with the arrival of the last movement. His performance is imbued with this sense of arrival: “In other words, the whole piece is a complex progression. There is a search for destiny in Mahler’s Fifth . . .”. The various moods of the earlier movements are revisited in the finale, but the listener is always led back to a powerful sense of confidence, communicated through playing of tremendous vigor. The whole piece swaggers to a close with a blaze of speed.

This is a thoughtful, thought-provoking performance. The accomplishment of this orchestra is little short of astonishing, and the synergy between orchestra and conductor is evident in every minute of this recording. The sound is warm, detailed, and spacious, with decent bass. Not since Giuseppe Sinopoli’s performance with the Philharmonia arrived out of the blue in 1985 has a recording of the Fifth seemed so refreshingly different (Zander’s is in a class by itself, especially in SACD). At the beginning of this review I invoked Dudamel’s illustrious predecessors on the yellow label, and there are several classic performances on that list. It should be praise enough to suggest that this recording belongs among such august company.

FANFARE: Christopher Abbot
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Works on This Recording

Symphony no 5 in C sharp minor by Gustav Mahler
Conductor:  Gustavo Dudamel
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1901-1902; Vienna, Austria 
Date of Recording: 02/2006 
Venue:  Aula Magna, Caracas, Venezuela 
Length: 69 Minutes 25 Secs. 

Featured Sound Samples

I. Trauermarsch
V. Rondo-Finale

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