Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra

Francesca da Rimini, Op.32
Symphony No.5 in E flat, Op.82

Anne Sofie von Otter (mezzo-soprano)

Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra
Gustavo Dudamel

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 5 August, 2005
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

The start of this concert was delayed by nearly an hour due to some technical problems that were causing a variety of noises to emerge from loudspeakers. Whilst we were offered no explanation as to the cause, it seemed odd that no-one was on hand to identify and rectify the situation more promptly. Could not the sound-system, surely only used for announcements, simply have been switched off?

Neeme Järvi was due to conduct, but illness prevented this, and his place was taken at short notice by the young Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel, who counts amongst his mentors Sir Simon Rattle, whom he assists, and whose influence was visibly apparent through Dudamel’s deployment of Rattle-like gestures, movement and facial expressions.

Perhaps in the circumstances it would be unfair to be too judgmental about Dudamel’s work, but one can only report that there were sad deficiencies, which led to less than compelling performances of a programme which was unchanged, save for the dropping of Eduard Tubin’s Toccata.

Whether due to the delayed start or other circumstances, Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini was decidedly underwhelming. The orchestra sounded curiously under-powered and restrained; more baleful brass was needed and altogether stronger, weightier attack from the whole. Dudamel’s stiff conducting did not help, in that the music staggered from one phrase to another, rather than developing in cohesive paragraphs. Thus the structure sounded more episodic than it needed to, the fast music lacked a sense of onward momentum, whilst the slowpassages lacked the requisite expression.

Mahler’s “Rückert-Lieder” was performed with somewhat more success, due to the presence and artistry of Anne Sofie von Otter, whose singing commanded a wide range of dynamics and vocal character. At the start of the first song, “Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder”, there was uncertainty of tempo, but von Otter was unfazed and continued to deliver lines that projected the texts and Mahler’s sympathetic response to them.

There were some moments to admire from the Gothenburg players. The principal woodwind – especially the oboe – delivered their lines admirably – and Mahler’s moments of repose and reflection were eloquent in their restraint. In the fourth song, “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen”, von Otter’s quiet singing was breathtaking though one never sensed she was striving to make an ‘effect’. It was once again difficult for the music to flow properly at the start of the last song, “Um Mitternacht”, owing to the orchestral contribution moving in piecemeal fashion and denying true cohesion between voice and accompaniment. Later on the brass contribution was effective, though not without intonation problems, and the balance was fine.

It was apparent that Dudamel did not really have a clear view of Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony. He might have done better to allow the orchestra to guide him, given its considerable experience of this music under Neeme Järvi but, instead, we had to endure a performance that almost denied the music its considerable stature.

The progress of the first movement was effortful, and that great moment of transition to scherzo-like material did not have the requisite sense of the inexorable. Furthermore, the basic tempo at the start of the latter was too fast. Therefore there was insufficient left in reserve for the on-going increase in speed: instead of building to a climax of exhilaration, the movement ended like a damp squib.

In the second movement, there was some fussy, mannered string phrasing, and woodwind articulation was decidedly limp and mincing, sounding as if a fairy or two had strode in from one of Tchaikovsky’s ballets. A good tempo was set for the start of the finale, but again details were not allowed to take care of themselves, the majestic horn theme was underplayed, and there was no sense of the inevitable as Sibelius brings his material to a climax. Credit to Dudamel, however, for giving the rests their full measure at the end.

It would not have been difficult for the BBC to have cast its net wider for a more learned replacement and one questions the wisdom of enabling a young and inexperienced conductor to develop his potential in such an exposed forum as this.

My concert-going companion was rather more blunt in his assertion that conducting of the kind we experienced “will kill classical music”.

The BBC have issued the following statement explaining the late starting of this concert:

The feedback audible in the auditorium which delayed the start of last Friday’s Prom was caused by a fault in the Royal Albert Hall’s public address system. The audible hum was delivered through the Hall’s public address speakers which are required for evacuation in the event of emergency. Neither the BBC’s equipment nor that used for occasional special amplification in the Hall was involved.

As this problem had never previously arisen it took longer than we would have wished to isolate and rectify the problem whilst safeguarding the integrity of the emergency PA system. Steps were implemented immediately following the concert to prevent the risk of a recurrence.

The Royal Albert Hall apologises for the inconvenience to the audiences in the Hall and on radio, and to the performers, and is grateful to them for their good-humoured patience.

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