Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela/Gustavo Dudamel at Royal Festival Hall (1) – Stravinsky’s Petrushka & The Rite of Spring

Stravinsky
Petrushka [1947 version]
The Rite of Spring

Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela
Gustavo Dudamel


Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 14 January, 2016
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Gustavo Dudamel & Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra, Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre 14.01.2016Photograph: © Nohely OliverosThis was the first of the Simón Bolívar Orchestra’s three-concert residency at the Royal Festival Hall. If one is going to programme an all-Stravinsky concert, a questionable idea, at least there is a certain logic to pairing Petrushka and The Rite of Spring since the idea for The Rite came to Stravinsky in 1910 but he then laid it on one side to work on Petrushka. The latter was one of Nijinsky’s greatest roles and the ballet itself a huge success in Paris in 1911 whereas The Rite proved a real challenge to stage effectively and the composer came to prefer it as a concert piece. When Pierre Monteux conducted it in the Casino de Paris a year after its infamous 1913 premiere, the original scandal was triumphantly reversed and Stravinsky was carried shoulder-high through the streets.

To hear both these works played by the huge Simón Bolívar Orchestra was something of a mixed blessing. With a very large string section the sound was nothing short of sumptuous and there were some particularly fine players amongst the woodwinds and brass, notably Tomás Medina on trumpet and the excellent Gonzalo Hidalgo’s all-important bassoon. However, the downside of such mega forces was that the clarity and the sort of lean incisiveness which so memorably characterised the late Pierre Boulez’s performances, particularly of The Rite, were in short supply; in Petrushka there were compensations – after all, this is music whose origins lie in the luxuriant soundworld of Stravinsky’s mentor Rimsky-Korsakov (even in the thinner 1947 revision) – and the rich double basses underpinning the opening of the final tableau were a particular pleasure, as were the individual contributions of flautist Katherine Rivas.

Gustavo Dudamel & Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra, Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre 14.01.2016Photograph: © Nohely OliverosWhen it came to The Rite of Spring the benefits of these enormous forces were even more questionable. It was all a bit like manoeuvring a very large oil tanker in a very small space and, whilst it was thrilling to hear such a full-frontal aural assault and weight of sound, it did lack something of that visceral punch and lucidity which can make other readings so memorable. Also, at some points, one sensed a holding back on Gustavo Dudamel’s part as though a particular moment needed to be rammed home. There is an underlying menace to much of The Rite – for instance in the eerie quietude of the ‘Introduction to Part Two’ – which felt underplayed. It is not enough to play the notes beautifully: there must be an element of suspense and we the audience should be uncomfortable.

Gustavo Dudamel & Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra, Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre 14.01.2016Photograph: © Nohely OliverosWith these provisos, it was still a remarkable achievement and well worth hearing two such now-standard works despatched with such polish and confidence. Stravinsky’s early rough and ready 78rpm recordings of this music made in Paris in the 1920s demonstrate just how far we have come.

There were two encores, the final section of The Firebird where unfortunately the horn soloist muffed his exposed entry and an eminently forgettable musical postcard called ‘Aires de Venezuela’ arranged by Pedro Elías Gutiérrez

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