Prom 29 – More style than substance in Dudamel’s Mahler

United KingdomUnited Kingdom   Mahler, Symphony No.2 ‘Resurrection’: Miah Persson (soprano), Anna Larsson (mezzo), National Youth Choir of Great Britain, Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela, Gustavo Dudamel. Royal Albert Hall, London, 5.8.2011. (JPr)

Picture © BBC/Chris Christodoulou

When this concert ended there was a spontaneous standing ovation from many in the capacity audience and thunderous applause for soloists, choir, orchestra and conductor that, it seemed, would never end. The only thing I was thinking as I remained firmly seated – and surveyed this jubilation around me – was … ‘Why?’ I suspect many present and lucky enough to get a ticket were not the most frequent concertgoers and were applauding the El Sistema ideals that created the Simón Bolívar Orchestra itself rather than the musical performance that we had just heard.

Mahler’s Second Symphony deals with a metaphysical rumination on human existence, a life, love, and a soul’s onward journey to Heaven in the hope of resurrection. Dudamel, who was greeted onto the podium as if he was Robbie Williams, seemed to have no sense of the music’s progression; the idea seemed to be to gloss over the less interesting moments at the expense of a climax here and another one there. There were high and lows but nothing in between. Musical phrases began in one tempo and ended in another, the second movement Ländler dragged alarmingly and then for no apparent reason, every now and then the music just stopped and took an age to get going again. It was as if we were hearing a suite of film music extracts and I mused at times whether Dudamel thought he was conducting the score to Avatar 2.

To their credit, at their very best moments Dudamel and his orchestra produced some viscerally exciting Mahler playing, especially the opening rumbling from 14 cellos. It was ‘sound effects’ that were the highlight of this performance such as in the last movement with the wonderful offstage brass as well as an extravagant array of percussion at the back of the platform. For such a huge number of players the orchestra often played with astonishing beauty and control when asked to. The flute soloist rose to her last movement challenge and there were virtuosic contributions from the leader’s violin through the symphony. Overall Dudamel’s approach was somewhat expressionistic and never was the music internalised, it totally lacked nostalgia or ‘soul’ and the orchestra were at their best when asked to play at their loudest and for its quietest moments, I repeat, the music often just ceased to exist.

The mezzo, Anna Larson, sang with an impeccably rich tone but her control of her rather understated ‘Urlicht’ was sorely tested by the fourth movement tempo dragging more than it needed to. Another Swede, Miah Persson, made a tellingly radiant contribution to the finale and the National Youth Choir of Great Britain sounded gloriously well-schooled.

We hear a ‘death shriek’ a couple of times in this symphony and this obviously had a tremendous impact in the Royal Albert Hall. With its reappearance in the finale it ushers in the sounding of the Last Trump and exultantly the music draws us onwards and upwards towards the closing choral section when it is revealed that there will be, in Mahler’s opinion, no divine judgement whatsoever. It is difficult for any choir to perform this convincingly given the exceptional vocal range required but a lack of maturity in the National Youth Choir’s contribution seemed very appropriate as Dudamel and his massed forces built to the final climax of ‘I shall die, in order to live!’. With this incandescent choral finale and the orchestra, especially the percussion, in full cry the end of this somewhat over-indulgent performance was an exciting ‘spectacle’ but Mahler’s music demands more than Dudamel revelling in the moment and ignoring its overall structure.

I did not see the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela when they appeared first at the Proms in 2007 and ended their concert with a sequence of Latin American numbers that has now become legend. I suspect many who demanded the conductor’s return to the platform time and again were hoping for something similar this time but it would not have been appropriate after this Mahler symphony. This return by the orchestra four years later – and now called a Symphony Orchestra – will clearly be remembered equally fondly by many. In a Proms season that has witnessed perhaps the best Prom I can remember (William Tell) I am very sorry but no matter how well most of the huge orchestra played or the soloists and choir sang – and its occasional very good moments – this was probably the worst conducted Resurrection Symphony at which I have been present.

Jim Pritchard