‘The Dude’ Takes Birmingham by Storm – But Did He Get Beneath the Surface of Mahler? *

18/11/2013

  Mahler, Philharmonia Orchestra, Gustavo Dudamel (conductor), Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 15.11.2013 (JQ)
Mahler:  Symphony No 7 in E minor

I don’t believe this was Gustavo Dudamel’s first visit to Symphony Hall. I have a recollection that he appeared some years ago as a guest conductor with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. That was when he was a young, exciting, up-and-coming conductor. Well, he’s still quite young – he’s 32 – and he’s exciting but now he is an established big name artist with a recording contract and is Musical Director of two orchestras: the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the orchestra with which he made his name, the Orquesta Sinfónica Simón Bolívar from his native Venezuela. Tonight he and the Philharmonia came to Birmingham bringing with them a single-work programme that they’d played in London the night before.

The publicity photo that was used to promote this concert showed Dudamel on the podium in a flamboyant pose with his arms flung out wide and a delighted grin on his face. There was none of that in evidence tonight. Indeed Dudamel’s conducting style was precise, clear and fairly restrained, though there were a few flamboyant gestures in the finale – but, then, that’s a flamboyant movement.

Usually when I leave a concert I have a pretty good idea of what I will say in the review but this concert was an exception. Some things were clear. For one thing, the symphony was brilliantly played by the Philharmonia, though the volume levels were rather too high at times, I felt. Another was that Dudamel, conducting from memory, appeared in total command and he brought out many telling little details in Mahler’s highly original scoring. However, I was unsure how well he had conveyed the spirit of Mahler’s music.  To be fair, this symphony is notoriously difficult to comprehend or to put across. My colleague, Jim Pritchard, has pointed out very persuasively the links with Die Meistersinger, for example. For myself, I’ve come to the conclusion that the symphony is best understood as some kind of journey from night to day, from darkness to light. If that interpretation holds water then I don’t think Dudamel quite conveyed it.

There was much to admire in the huge first movement. In the main Allegro the rhythms were crisply enunciated and in the middle of the movement the slower, achingly lyrical section was gorgeously played with the Philharmonia violins singing out their line most persuasively. Dudamel led a vivid account of the movement and I think that was, perhaps, the trouble: there were too many bright primary colours. The tenor horn theme at the very start, for instance, sounded too ‘present’ and not, as I prefer to hear it, baleful. In all, this was a reading with much brilliance but insufficient mystery or darkness to it.

The second movement, the first of the two Nachtmusiken, is a spooky march which several of Mahler’s associates, later compared to Rembrandt’s celebrated painting, The Night Watch. However, the Dutch composer Alphons Diepenbrock was surely right to point out that Mahler ‘cited the painting only as a point of comparison’. Diepenbrock went on to comment that the movement is ‘full of fantastic chiaroscuro – hence the Rembrandt comparison.’ I was somewhat disconcerted at the very start by how loudly the initial horn-call was played – I’ve never heard it so loud. Mahler’s music was strongly accented and projected in this performance and, once again the rhythms were excellently articulated. When the distant cowbells made their appearance the sound was well managed and throughout the movement I relished the acute and tangy playing. However, I missed a sense of the shadows; the music seemed to be experienced in the daylight.

The central scherzo carries the marking Schattenhaft, which I believe can be translated as ‘shadowy’. I think that perhaps it’s only when you see a live performance that you fully realised just how difficult this music is to play. The scoring is full of weird shrieks and broken rhythms; fragments of music are hurled around the orchestra. The music is full of all sorts of nocturnal goings-on. Dudamel was the master of the score here, controlling everything very tightly and positively, ensuring that all the elements of Mahler’s piquant orchestration were realised. The Philharmonia backed him to the hilt with some marvellously precise playing

The second Nachtmusik could not be more different in character to the second movement. Marked Andante amoroso it’s a piece that finds Mahler in nostalgic and sentimental mood. The movement was distinguished by much excellent solo playing from the orchestra’s leader, Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay. Here, textures were admirably clear – the mandolin and guitar parts registered nicely. Dudamel’s reading was clear-eyed and once again he brought out, without any artificial spot-lighting, a lot of detail, such as the long, low clarinet trill near the end. However, I didn’t feel there was a great deal of warmth or affection in the reading; it seemed to me to be rather objective.

With scarcely a pause for breath Dudamel launched into the finale, the orchestra’s timpanist, Andrew Smith, making his presence felt – as he should in this movement. What are we to make of this finale? Is it, as some have suggested, empty and bombastic or is it, as I prefer to think, an ebulliently high-spirited, eventful rondo in which Mahler is arguably more cheerful than anywhere else in his symphonies. Dudamel and his orchestra made the most of the movement, playing it for all it’s worth. I thought the conductor did a good job here in holding what can seem a bitty structure together. Mahler throws everything but the kitchen sink into this movement – in fact, for all I know there could have been a kitchen sink among the vast array of percussion – and it needs a virtuoso orchestra to bring it off; the Philharmonia were fully up to the task.

At the exultant close the audience acclaimed the performance and on one level I’m not surprised: this was a brilliantly played account of this demanding score although perhaps the conductor and orchestra slightly misjudged the famously clear acoustic of Symphony Hall, leading to exaggerated volume on several occasions. However, for all the surface brilliance of the performance I was left with an uneasy feeling that the depths of one of Mahler’s most elusive scores had not been plumbed. I had a number of reservations about Dudamel’s recent live recording of Mahler’s Ninth (review) and here too I felt that while there was much to admire about this account of Mahler’s Seventh there is much more in this score than was revealed on this occasion.

The BBC broadcast Dudamel’s London performance of the symphony and it can be heard for the next few days by clicking here.

John Quinn  

* Author’s Note
Since this review was published I have been told that Gustavo Dudamel was very late in arriving in Birmingham for this concert, due to circumstances completely outside his control. Journeying from London to Birmingham by car, he was seriously delayed on the motorway by traffic congestion due to an accident. As a result I understand he arrived at Symphony Hall only some 12 minutes before the scheduled start of the concert. Consequently, though he and the Philharmonia had played the symphony on the previous night in London they were unable to have any rehearsal in Symphony Hall itself. As I commented that perhaps the artists misjudged the hall’s acoustic, leading to playing that was sometimes too loud, it seems only fair to mention these extenuating circumstances. Indeed, Dudamel and the orchestra are to be congratulated on surmounting any problems arising from his last-minute arrival with such professionalism.

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