Top Ear

The Dude’s Mahler 7 Cuts the Mustard

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Jeremy Lee writes

Gustavo Dudamel’s Mahler recordings have been somewhat variable:  the 5th with the Simon Bolivar “Youth” Orchestra of Venezuela continues to astonish as one of the most exuberant 5ths ever made, the 1st with the Los Angeles Philharmonic was very good, a fresh and lively account, while the 9th with the Los Angeles Philharmonic was a dud that lacked character.  (Not forgetting his 8th, on DVD and Blu-Ray, and which I have not heard.)  So we come to the fourth release in his cycle, a live 7th with the Simon Bolivar “Symphony” Orchestra of Venezuela–has the orchestra lost its youth orchestra status?

In many respects it is a conventional affair–Dudamel does not have particularly interesting ideas and his timings are fairly conventional, though he does reveal some contrapuntal details here and there that are not particularly significant in the larger scheme of things.  What he succeeds in doing, however, is unleashing tons of excitement in the faster sections.  He perfectly paces the acceleration between the Langsam and Allegro energico sections of the first movement, and what an “energico”!  Taken at a speed a touch quicker than usual, Dudamel encourages his players to deliver greatly vigorous and engaged playing, aided with some impactful percussion playing particularly in the timpani and the bass drum.  Same goes for the Rondo-Finale, a tautly paced rendition that is brilliant and thrilling.  Observing how the strings manage to hang on at around 8:00 and 11:20 is a rush of adrenalin–like riding a roller coaster, and not unlike Kondrashin’s zippy live performance with the Concertgebouw Orchestra.

There are a number of problems that prevent this release from being truly impressive on the whole, however.  The first problem is that this performance lacks sheer atmosphere which the music really needs, such as the opening of the first movement (which starts too loud, narrowing the contrast between this section and the ensuing Allegro), the middle “moonlit” section of the same movement, as well as both Nachtmusiks (which are gorgeously played, no doubt, but lacks color and the sense of relaxation).  The Scherzo, on the hand, is wonderfully grotesque and features excellent solo playing, but everything is a bit too blatant:  I miss the subtly slithering and sinistral moments that Abbado and Barenboim, among others, deliver.  The other major thing this performance lacks is intensity:  I seldom got a feeling that the orchestra is really giving their all, unlike, say Tennstedt in his tremendous live recording, though that may be the fault of Dudamel as well, who generally refuses to let the climaxes inflate out of size.  In this sense it seems that, in this difficult music at least, structural clarity and red-hot intensity is much of a trade-off, though a select few have proved that we can have the best of both worlds (Tilson Thomas/LSO (RCA), for example, or Haitink II/RCO (Philips)).

Throughout, the SBSOV delivers enthusiastic playing that is pretty much world-class technically, and though there are some flaws in coordination and intonation (what a sour final note of the Nachtmusik I!) this is forgivable given the live provenance.  What it fails to deliver, as opposed to most other big-name, world-class orchestras is character of ensemble, so much so that besides the lush string playing and thrilling percussion it all sounds faceless (the woodwinds are particularly bland, and the principal flute’s tone is fluttery and hollow–just plain ugly).  It’s all captured in slightly dry yet extremely vivid and detailed sound, and audience presence is detectable but polite.  Not a particularly revelatory Mahler 7th, but certainly a very good one that deserves our attention.


  • Album name:  Mahler:  Symphony No. 7
  • Performers:  Gustavo Dudamel (conductor);  Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela
  • Label:  DG 479 1700
  • Sonics:  Stereo DDD
  • Total playing time:  1:18:51

Author: Top Ear

Musical hooligans.

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