Mahler: Symphony No. 7
Philharmonia Orchestra, Gustavo Dudamel (cond.)
The Festival Hall foyer was abuzz with anticipation ahead of this evening’s concert, which was curious given that it was performed by a resident orchestra who plays here every week and the only work on the programme was Mahler’s Seventh, the most rambling and least loved of his symphonies. No, the London audiences were out in force to hear Gustavo Dudamel, currently the hottest conductor on the circuit and a frustratingly rare visitor to these shores.
Watching Dudamel on the podium, it is easy to see why he is such a star. He conducts without a score – quite a feat given the vicissitudes of this particular work – the better to put his whole body to the service of the music. His baton technique is all about small, jerky movements. But that’s just to give the details of his beat, and the rest of his body moves with grace and ease, physically manifesting the emotions and moods he is evoking. He has that rare ability to conduct in (at least) two ways at once, giving the beat to the scurrying strings, for example, with his baton, while also provoking some violent responses from the percussion and brass with his body language and, yes, his hair, a secret weapon few other conductors can boast.
Despite his reputation for dynamic and extrovert performances, this Mahler Seven was surprisingly staid. Tempos were on the brisk side and the phrases, while elegantly shaped, often seemed constrained by the amount of control he was exerting over the players. That impression was much stronger in the earlier movements than the later ones, creating a narrative that built towards more opulent and expressionistic textures towards the end. Mahler Seven is a piece that needs some clear ideas from the conductor; it can easily drag in less competent hands. Dudamel’s approach often seemed constrictive, and there were many aspects of the score that didn’t seem to interest him very much, but his complete control over the music, and especially over its progress and unfolding drama, overcame many of the structural problems that are usually all too apparent.
The Philharmonia didn’t really raise their game for the celebrity conductor, which was a shame. His slick, focussed reading was of a kind that would have benefited from tight ensemble and unity of intent. But the string section lacked focus, and the woodwinds were often ragged. None of this was fatal, but it worked against what Dudamel was trying to do. As much as anything else, it suggested that he is used to working with far superior orchestras.
The opening of the first movement was particularly strict, faster than usual and without any sense of atmosphere. An excellent euphonium solo from Byron Fulcher (with just a touch of vibrato at the top) was supported by dour, but not particularly dark, textures from the woodwinds and lower strings. Most of the first movement was in a similar vein, brisk, carefully phrased and usually avoiding extremes. Dudamel never let the quieter, slower sections off the leash; he always seemed preoccupied by the tuttis to follow. And the tuttis were never as loud or as wild as Salonen, for example, would take them with the same forces. But Dudamel’s control paid dividends at the end of the movement, where the gradual buildup to the final climax takes various diversions and momentary lapses, none of which he allowed to get in the way of the clear structuring of the coda.
The second movement began with a robust but finely judged horn solo, which soon led into some fairly chaotic woodwind textures. Dudamel seemed keen to emphasise the individual lines here, and was able to balance the individual players to bring out all the lines. But again the results felt overly restrained, and the music rarely seemed to breathe as it should. The offstage percussion was set back at such a distance as to be barely audible, another balance consideration perhaps.
Things picked up with the third movement scherzo, and from here on the performance finally came to life. The rubato that he had studiously avoided up to here was put to the service of the Ländler passages, which still felt a bit stilted, but swayed elegantly all the same. The second “Nachtmusik” movement was considerably superior to the first, more atmospheric and better served by the detail and careful phrasing that Dudamel drew from the woodwind soloists. (Incidentally, the Guest Principal flute this evening was the excellent Karen Jones, whose breathy but focused tone and precise articulation was about the best thing the woodwind section had to offer. The last time I heard the Philharmonia another guest flautist occupied the chair, none other than Katherine Bryan. Is the orchestra planning to make an appointment? If so, either of these would be excellent choices.)
The finale is the toughest movement for any conductor approaching the Seventh. Its structure is opaque and its length extreme, especially following the previous substantial movements. As with the first movement, Dudamel took a measured approach to much of the music here. He capitalised on the orchestral colours that Mahler draws, and made sure all of the surprises, the sforzandos and sudden loud entries, had their full impact. Again, the quieter passages lost out, seemingly just stopping points in the inexorable progress towards the grand climax, which certainly was grand. The coda of this movement was sensational, combining fireworks from every corner of the orchestra with an impressive attention to detail. But it achieved its effect largely through the preparation Dudamel had given it, throughout the finale, and arguably throughout the whole work.
A highly structured reading, then, of this notoriously unstructured symphony. Dudamel gave a direct and focused reading that offered subtle solutions to the work’s many structural problems. To do that, he had to make sacrifices, especially in the more atmospheric passages in the early movements. An intelligent reading, not a perfect one by any means, but one that showed impressive maturity and that was clearly based on a deep knowledge and understanding of the music. What Dudamel lacked this evening in the dynamism that has been his trademark he made up for in a musical maturity that could yet prove even more valuable.
This performance was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and is available to listen on demand until 21 November 2013: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03h3whr