Top Ear

The Dude’s Un-special Mahler Ninth

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Jeremy Lee writes

This Mahler Ninth has exactly two parts worthy of attention:  the ending of the Rondo-Burleske, in which Dudamel very successfully notches up the tempo through Stretto right up to the final Presto which injects the orchestra with a burning dollop of adrenalin, and the snarling bass trombone in the Landler which sounds terrifically uncouth.  Everything else, I am afraid to say, is little more than merely proficient.  Dudamel starts the first movement atmospherically, but after the underwhelming surge around 4 minutes into the movement, the general lack of ideas started to make my attention wander.  Another problem that becomes evident here is that Dudamel doesn’t sustain the melodic line long enough to create tension as well as a strong cohesiveness through the various sections of the movement, so that most of the complicated writing here sounds meandering and directionless, making it sound oddly disconnected, sectionalized and flaccid, especially when taken at this moderately-slow tempo (29:32), leaving me wondering why he had bothered using so much time to say so little.  Climaxes are also underdone:  the first major one, with the trumpets storming the heavens, is let down by a timpani roll which crescendos to a tepid mezzo-something-or-other then immediately pulls back, eliminating all traces of intensity; the “collapse” climax which is less than menacing, despite some passionate string playing that ensues (Abbado/VPO’s trombone glissandos can’t be beat here); and even the final climax with pealing trombones in which the tam-tam is given a half-hearted whack (the trombones project very well though).  Speaking of which, the searing section before that final climax, suddenly jolted from the calm plateau that precedes it, is also underplayed, and when comparing it to, say, Gilbert/Royal Stockholm Philharmonic on BIS, the lack of intensity becomes pretty obvious.

Things improve in the Landler, which starts with some lovely woodwind playing, but a bit humorless compared to the Concertgebouw winds for Haitink and Chailly, or the BPO’s for Abbado, and the waltz sequences, while quite exciting, sounds a bit too suave — none of that terror-inducing presentiment of chaos that Bernstein/BPO or Barenboim/SB brings.  The Rondo-Burleske has the same problem:  considered by itself, it is surely a competent affair, but it lacks in edge-of-seat excitement, and an immediate comparison with so many other versions shows that Dudamel falls short when it comes to the strongest of emotions, such as insouciant vulgarity, intense fury or sardonic wit, all of which are expressed in this movement.  The finale, taken at a near-perfect Adagio tempo, is let down by the lack of intensity at its main climax (even Solti and Boulez trump him), and the Adagissimo disintegration lacks poignancy.

Is this entirely the fault of Dudamel?  I doubt it.  The Los Angeles Philharmonic’s playing standards have improved tremendously recently, and even the scrawny strings sometimes heard in Mehta’s or Giulini’s (!) recordings have been replaced with a richness that rivals the best European orchestras.  As would be expected, they play very well in this recording.  My reservation concerns the ensemble’s lack of character and color, something that is vital to much of Mahler’s music, and in the second and third movements of this symphony in particular.  The cool virtuosity of the Los Angeles players does not cover the fact that the woodwinds sound faceless in the second movement, or that the brass aren’t consistent in the first and third movements (horns are particularly backward-sounding), or that the strings don’t carry enough intensity to make the climax in the final movement a truly unforgettable affair.

I’ve probably used too many comparisons in my review, but to call this an excellent performance without taking into consideration so many other more interesting and convincing interpretations is like calling Singapore a great holiday destination without taking into consideration St. Tropez, or Tokyo, or Venice, or…you get the picture.  This recording is quite a letdown, particularly when you take into consideration Dudamel’s completely successful and tremendously exciting Mahler 5th with the SBYOV.  I hate to commercialize music by bringing in the concept of a “crowded market of Mahler 9ths”, but the plain fact is this:  with so many more attention-worthy recordings to choose from, there is no way I can wholeheartedly recommend this technically accomplished yet musically uninteresting effort.

Details

  • Album name:  Mahler:  Symphony No. 9
  • Performers:  Gustavo Dudamel (conductor);  Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra
  • Label:  DG 479 0924
  • Sonics:  Stereo DDD
  • Total playing time:  86:06
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Author: Top Ear

Musical hooligans.

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