Philharmonia Orchestra/Dudamel Gil Shaham – Smetana, Dvořák & Tchaikovsky

The Bartered Bride – Overture
Violin Concerto in A minor, Op.53
Symphony No.5 in E minor, Op.64

Gil Shaham (violin)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Gustavo Dudamel

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 8 June, 2008
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Gustavo DudamelThe ‘Dudamel phenomenon’ rolls on with the second of his current Philharmonia Orchestra concerts, which attracted a capacity house and the sort of audience ecstasy which makes an objective review strangely elusive. Faced with this degree of adulation one is tempted either to capitulate totally or go to the opposite extreme of finding fault with everything. Inevitably the truth lies somewhere in between. What is not open to question is that the Dudamel dynamo reaches the parts that other conductors seldom reach, energising everything he touches. Like Barack Obama’s ability to attract fresh voters into the political system, Dudamel clearly has the charisma to bring in fresh faces who might otherwise never see the inside of a concert hall.

If high-octane energy were the key to “The Bartered Bride”, Dudamel’s explosive account of the Overture would surely have taken the palm. Strangely, it was precisely that little moment of calm immediately before the coda where the woodwinds pause and look back reflectively which suddenly touched the heart and showed exactly what had previously been missing. With so much forceful exuberance in evidence, one was somehow reminded that there is also charm, joy and melancholy in equal measure between the lines of this bucolic folk opera.

Gil Shaham. Photograph: Boyd HagenContinuing the Czech theme, Dvořák’s Violin Concerto responded much better to this high-pressure treatment – the first movement in particular is one of Dvořák’s more Brahmsian creations – and there was clearly the closest rapport between Gil Shaham and Gustavo Dudamel. Possessing a Milstein-like sweetness of sound and security, Shaham is a near-ideal soloist in this work which calls for humanity as well as virtuosity, coping well with its declamatory opening and yet finding a rare magic in the beautifully prepared second subject; he was partnered throughout with some superlative wind-playing, notably from oboist Christopher Cowie. The heart of the work lies in the central Adagio where Shaham’s initial entry had a muted intensity that was deeply affecting, matched by orchestral playing of rare concentration and finesse. Only in the exuberant Furiant finale did one sense a certain over-forcefulness on Dudamel’s part – this is Dvořák in folk mode, not Ginastera – but far better this level of commitment (the slower double-stopped Dumka section was particularly memorable), and both soloist and conductor made the most of the theatrical pause before the final sprint to the finishing line. Shaham offered some unaccompanied Bach as an encore.

The Philharmonia has always made something of a speciality of Tchaikovsky’s 5th Symphony (my first encounter was at the Edinburgh Festival with Barbirolli in 1963) and the reasons for its success with this work are not hard to find. If the Philharmonia Orchestra has three defining characteristics which have remained unchanged from generation to generation, they are warm string-sound, sophisticated wind-playing and well-integrated brass, all prerequisites for Tchaikovsky 5, especially the string sound. In fact this performance enlightened and infuriated in roughly equal measure.

Whilst individual moments delighted – the sensitively shaped opening paragraph and – in the slow movement – Laurence Davies’s confident horn solo and Barnaby Robson’s velvet clarinet postlude, the larger picture remained opaque. Why, for instance, have a string section this good, yet obliterate them totally at the first sign of brass? Devoid of previous restraint, Tchaikovsky’s two real climaxes at the close of the first and second movements paid diminishing returns, each just one more climax amongst many. Although Dudamel’s actual interpretative choices about speeds and rubato were not particularly controversial, by living so intensely for each micro-second – for all the self-evident charisma and the excitement generated – there was no sense of symphonic structure. The finale’s breathless Allegro vivace – taken at Mravinsky’s tempo but shorn of his fiery focus and clarity – swept the audience before it, eliciting a standing ovation.

Dudamel is a conundrum. Like Zubin Mehta, a predecessor of his at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, also incidentally 26 at the time of his appointment, Dudamel is prodigiously gifted in terms of his ability to galvanise an orchestra. It is what he actually does with it that is so questionable.

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