Classical and Opera Reviews

Prom 29: Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela/Dudamel @ Royal Albert Hall, London

5 August 2011


Mahlers Symphonies are a tangle of neurotic energy, imploding and refracting, with occasional outbursts of pent-up emotion as gigantic slabs of sound. This seems to have been reversed by the conductor, Dudamel, who revelled in the outbursts but side-stepped the all-important tangles and triggers. There were some exquisite moments of pianissimo and some equally startling fortissimo sections, but never any of the feverish, nagging connections that tie Mahlers grand statements together. Just the statements. Everything was too bold, too pompous, too self-assured to whip up a sense of emotional danger.

Most of the elements were there- fearless percussion, luxurious strings and fine singing the National Youth Choir sang full-throated in the glorious final movement, but it didnt come as a shocking release, it was just plonked on at the end, without tension or desperation. Miah Persson and Anna Larson sang beautifully, despite a dodgy moment from Larsson in the Ulricht aria in the fourth movement (actually a flat note that sounded somehow right). The off-stage bands that Mahler uses to disorientate and create texture were fantastic, placed as they were so far from the orchestra, and causing the usual confusion and delight among the crowd most of whom dont expect it, even if they are familiar with the music from recordings. This was a happy technicality that had more to do with the size and shape of the Albert Hall rather than anything like a visionary decision.

Of course there was a massive standing ovation for the celebrity conductor (as opposed to the composer, who was absent from this bombastic, pompous performance) despite numerous gaffes, wrong notes and sloppy entries from the brass section as well as the strange decision to bring on the soprano and mezzo after the first movement (amid applause), breaking up the momentum and decapitating the symphony as a whole.

There is a chance that my dislike of the performance was influenced by other factors such as seeing an unbelievably gripping performance by Lorin Maazel at the Royal Festival Hall not long ago; being unimpressed at Dudamels conducting style; or having unrealistic expectations of this supposedly revolutionary orchestra. There were moments of brilliance, like the tempo shift in the massive climax of the first movement, but isolated pockets of brilliance dont add up to a great performance, and if Dudamel is a committed Mahlerian, its not the Mahler that moves me.



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