Los Angeles Philharmonic/Dudamel at Barbican Hall – Mahler 9

Symphony No.9

Los Angeles Philharmonic
Gustavo Dudamel

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 28 January, 2011
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Gustavo Dudamel. Photograph: Mathew ImagingOtto Klemperer wrote of the Adagio that concludes Mahler 9: “There is no more irony, sarcasm, no resentment whatever. Only the majesty of Death.” Without suggesting that only an older person can penetrate this music, it is legitimate to ask whether a young conductor at the peak of his physical powers can relate fully to music so consciously written sub specie mortis (under the shadow of Death). Some younger conductors – notably Daniel Harding with Staatskapelle Dresden, also in Barbican Hall – have succeeded brilliantly. On this occasion, however, despite luxury playing from all sections of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the results under Gustavo Dudamel were decidedly mixed. He certainly took the long view – the performance started a quarter-of-an-hour late and finished 90 minutes later – and although there were few really questionable decisions when it came to tempos, there were several significant moments where Dudamel failed to sustain the music. At the work’s closing morendo, for instance, one could hardly say that the music sang through the silences.

Conducting from memory, there was no question that Dudamel had internalised the symphony’s broader contours; however, a wealth of inner detail went largely unexplored. In the first movement especially Mahler frequently has different sections of the orchestra playing simultaneously at quite different dynamic levels – cellos ppp whilst bassoons are marked forte, for example – but what we got was simply loud – often very loud – or soft (and with little distinction made between p, pp and ppp). Many exhaustive dynamic markings were glossed over, robbing the music of much of its distinctive tang. The result was monochromatic, making us aware of general outlines but short-changing us at climactic moments such as the moment of catastrophe at the core of the first movement where the trombonists failed to sustain their ff interjection until the marked diminuendo.

The second-movement Ländler started out promisingly at a reasonable speed, but as soon as the rustic violins (marked “wie Fiedeln”) entered Dudamel was at such pains to characterise the music that the tempo slackened and initial impetus was lost and, later, there was insufficient contrast between different episodes. The third-movement Rondo-Burleske brought some superbly assured playing but was devoid of that thundering anger behind the notes (Mahler indicates “sehr trotzig”, which roughly translates as stubborn or defiant). After the premonition of the finale the movement erupts tempo subito as it gallops to the abyss; its successive tempo increases were precisely calibrated but with little sense that “things fall apart” (W. B. Yeats).

At a very slow tempo the last movement certainly brought some glorious string-playing but the alternating sections for woodwind and harp were so dragged that when the Molto adagio resumed there was little feeling of a homecoming before the work’s ultimate dissolution and fade into silence. Also, rather than embedding his brief but important solos into the string texture, the wonderfully secure first horn (William Caballero) played an over-dominant role, hogging the limelight. At the close Dudamel held his baton aloft for what seemed an interminable time as though to emphasise the profundity of what we had just heard. The problem was – for all the sound and fury of those 90 minutes – that not a great deal had happened.

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