Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Philharmonia/Dudamel @ Royal Festival Hall, London

21 February 2009

Dudamel belies his years and delivers an astonishingly mature reading of Mahler’s 5th Symphony.

With the members of the Philharmonia playing as if possessed, this was truly a night to remember.

It’s hard to believe that Venezuelan wunderkind Gustavo Dudamel is a couple of years off reaching his thirtieth birthday. Whilst one can’t help feeling that there are certain hyenas in the musical world that can’t wait for him to come a cropper, their moment of schadenfreude looks a long way off, if this remarkable concert is anything to go by. Quite why anyone should be gunning for this young, enthusiastic and prodigiously gifted young conductor is hard to fathom maybe people just don’t like to see others succeed but there is no denying that almost everything he touches turns to gold.

Mahler’s 5th Symphony is a tricky beast to tame. It’s certainly become one of his most frequently performed symphonies in recent years and I’ve seen a wide range of conductors try to pull it off with varying results, from the incomprehensible (Jaap van Zweden) to the technically accomplished (Daniel Harding), via the overtly-Romantic (Philippe Jordan). Somehow Dudamel’s grasp of this symphony’s often unwieldy structure was total, and he drew some of the finest playing I have heard from this particular orchestra in years, and that’s saying something.

From the opening clarion trumpet calls (Mark David superb) it was evident that this was going to be no run-of-the-mill performance. The power of the first orchestral tutti was properly shattering and from there on Dudamel shaped the portentous funeral march unerringly. Climaxes were neither bald, rushed nor done in a showy manner they grew organically from the wealth of orchestral detail that Dudamel was able to unfurl from all departments of the Philharmonia playing at full stretch.

Tempi were perfectly judged, no more so than in the Scherzo that had a suitable sense of urgency, forward propulsion and immediacy that also allowed for playfulness in the lilting melodies that are juxtaposed throughout the movement. Nigel Black’s horn playing was not only technically assured, but wonderfully nuanced as well.

The Adagietto is always the trickiest part to bring off, not only has it been done to death out of context but in the wrong hands can become over sentimental and glutinous. Dudamel kept things on the right side of schmaltzy; after all it was meant as a love paean to the composer’s wife, with the strings delivering plenty of wonderfully luminous playing.

The finale was suitably boisterous and provided a fitting climax to a memorable, but above all deeply musical performance of this glorious symphony, one which the audience responded to with a heartfelt and thoroughly-deserved standing ovation.

In the first half of the concert Emanuel Ax delivered a delicate, introspective reading of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 17 in G with some wonderfully shaded, filigree accompaniment from Dudamel, which just goes to show that he really does have the Midas touch.

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