Symphony No.5 in C minor, Op.67
Symphony No.7 in A, Op.92
Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela
Recorded February 2006 in Ciudad Universitaria, Aula Magna, Caracas
Reviewed by: Antony Hodgson
Reviewed: March 2007
CD No: DG 477 6228
Duration: 69 minutes
The booklet note is devoted entirely to a history of the formation of the orchestra, which stems from the courageous work of José Antonio Abreu described as “economist, organist and politician”. His passion for social change, particularly concerning the socially deprived youth of Venezuela, prompted him to begin educating young people musically to the extent that the government was prepared to substantially fund his worthy work. So striking has been the success of this project that many famous European musicians have worked with the ensembles created by it – notably Claudio Abbado who has spent periods rehearsing and performing with youthful Venezuelan orchestras. Gustavo Dudamel became a conducting student of Abreu at the age of 17.
Admirable and exciting as this story may be it is still remarkable that Deutsche Grammophon should be prepared to issue much-recorded masterpieces using these personnel. Most collectors will be well aware of the huge success of this very coupling issued by the same company in performances by Carlos Kleiber and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and comparison is bound to be made.
The obvious question is: what does the orchestra sound like and how does it compare with the quality of established European and American Orchestras? Collectors may remember the series of recordings made by Bruno Walter with the New York Philharmonic and Columbia Symphony orchestras in the 1950s and 60s and Dudamel’s orchestra has much of the weighty sound of those performances. Walter used big forces – even in Mozart – yet he was always able to reveal the inner parts and the Venezuelan Orchestra sounds something like that (but without the boosted treble of the violins which was fashionable with CBS in the 1950s/60s).
With no European background I thought perhaps that Dudamel might bring an ‘uninfluenced’ approach to Beethoven. In the event these interpretations could have been conceived by a German conductor – not an old-fashioned musician in the traditionalist school but a modern-thinking personality who retains just a few traits of mid-European tradition. There is just one area of stylistic disappointment. It involves the long-standing habit of slowing before the third fermata in the first movement of Beethoven’s 5th (bars 19-21) for which there is no justification in Beethoven’s score. This habit has been perpetuated by countless conductors (it was a revelation to hear Erich Kleiber’s 1953 recording where he drives through this passage without a hint of slackening). Even Kleiber’s son Carlos did not keep up the tension here in his otherwise great recording. Dudamel is not hugely disruptive at this point but I wish that he had not paid any recognition to that moment of outdated interpretation and he does this again at the reappearance of similar passages, slowing also for the final statement of the main theme before the coda. Similarly I would have preferred it if Dudamel had not emphasised the horn-call introduction to the second subject by slowing slightly because this reduces the sense of tension.
I must however stress that none of these examples is anything like as marked as in the many ‘old-fashioned’ versions available on disc. This apart, Dudamel gives a very dynamic reading of this great symphony. The very fast basic speed of the opening movement is ideal, he is also one of the few conductors who can adopt a tempo arguably slower than Beethoven’s marked Andante con moto in the second movement yet still cause it to flow. Dudamel does not follow the modern theory of reinstating the long repeat of the scherzo that Beethoven probably removed on publication of the music. He also omits the finale repeat but in those cases where the scherzo repeat is not reinstated (at least 90 percent of all performances) the proportions of the whole work still remain logical if that of the finale is omitted also.
Dudamel’s approach to dynamics is interesting. Crescendos are always tense and exciting but fortissimos are not hit especially hard. In the terraced dynamics of the finale, the Kleiber (or more recently Zinman or Mackerras) approach is to mark each dynamic change boldly, with Dudamel the changes of volume are made within the flow of the music.
In Symphony No.7 the question of repeats again arises. It is not usual nowadays to omit the exposition repeats of the outer movements (forty years ago no-one ever thought to make them) and I am surprised that Dudamel should ignore them. Nevertheless, he has positive ideas on musical proportion. A grave, noble introduction is followed by an ideal medium pace for the Vivace. The Allegretto is a little relaxed but again the conductor achieves impulse. The scherzo (given all repeats) has unusually slow trios. Beethoven asked for the tempo to be ‘Assai meno presto’ and by his metronome marks indicated that this meant two-thirds of the speed of the scherzo. Dudamel is far slower that that: equivalent to the challengingly slow version by Erich (but not Carlos) Kleiber yet not as slow as Weingartner whose recording parallels what he wrote in his book on performing Beethoven’s symphonies by taking this passage at half-speed. In the finale Dudamel is excitingly fast, he shapes the music with masterly precision and the orchestra is amazingly at one with him. This unrelenting fury illuminates the music.
Dynamics are always subtle but not especially wide – I feel this is a matter of performance rather than recording. This is a big orchestra (it includes up to 80 strings) and is given a big sound spread. Balance is good but it is not part of the orchestra’s style for individual instruments to leap out of the texture (a bit more from the piccolo in the finale of No.5 would have been welcome) but the engineers seem to have represented the orchestra fairly. I don’t quite understand a sudden reduction in volume near the end of the long climax before the start of the finale of No.5 nor a tiny pause before a big horn-led chord 40 seconds from the end of the finale of No.7 – especially as there was no pause before a similar chord only a few seconds earlier.
The Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra and Gustavo Dudamel have been set, by Deutsche Grammophon, against other recordings by the greatest orchestras in the world, yet I don’t need to draw attention to anything more significant than these few details. I should very much like to hear more from this ensemble.