Top Ear

Concert Review: Dudamel’s Mahler Sixth

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Jeremy Lee writes

For his Asian debut with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Dudamel has chosen a rather striking programme for the first stop of his tour, Hong Kong:  Mahler’s 6th on March 19, and John Adams’ City Noir and Dvorak’s 9th on the 20th.  As a Mahler nut, I went to the first concert, and was greeted with a performance that was fascinatingly well played and generally exciting, but not particularly special in terms of interpretation.

Dudamel launched the first movement at a spot-on tempo immediately after the initial applause ceded, with thumping basses and cellos that provided a very firm support to the orchestra’s sonority, leading to some very full-throated fortissimos from the horns and trumpets.  The sound that Dudamel extracted from the Angelenos was surprisingly rich and fruity (none of that flimsiness in the string tone that at times disfigured his recording of Mahler 9), with perfect top-to-bottom balances and, as mentioned, prominent contributions from the high brass.  However, it also struck me that trombones were quite reticent in passages that required them to play out, a trait that persisted throughout the performance.  In the first movement, this meant that their countermelody in the first subject was all but inaudible.  A caveat:  I was assigned (I bought the discounted student tickets) to a seat quite far off right from the centre of the stage yet also very close to the stage, i.e. around where the second violins sat (in Dudamel’s seating arrangement).  In a hall as variable as the Hong Kong Cultural Centre, this made spatial orientation and balance less than ideal, so what I got out of the concert (especially concerning the matter of the weak trombones) would probably be very different from those sitting in the middle of the hall or at the balcony.

The andante that followed the clangorous end of the first movement caught me off-guard slightly as I was expecting the Scherzo to commence (Dudamel is on record commenting on the supremacy of the Scherzo-Andante order).  But what an Andante, one that flowed songfully and effortlessly in the opening bars, and achieved a quite impressively wrenching climax (let down by half-heartedly hit cowbells).  However, I missed that bittersweet longing that tinged interpretations as diverse as Bernstein, Karajan, Tennstedt and Abbado.  I have no reservations for the performance of the Scherzo however:  a hair-raisingly thrilling performance with some quite evil sonorities billowing from the orchestra’s nether regions that sent chills down my spine.

To many, any great performance of the Sixth rests on the monumental finale, and here is where Dudamel comes up short.  The sostenuto introduction lacked atmosphere and mystery (with that initial soaring theme in the first violins played choppily and a bit matter-of-fact) despite a wonderful tuba solo, and those two horn calls followed with thumping drums conveyed little terror.  The allegro proper, however, was quite swift, energized and charged throughout, with Dudamel eliciting sharp attacks from the strings at their respective entrances, and the lead-up towards the first hammer-capped climax burnt with intensity.  However, after that marvellous hammer-blow, the reticent trombones struck me as a major let-down, not only because they were barely audible from where I sat, but also because they could not compare to the trumpets, tuba, and (later) horns in terms of projection and power.  The wild string-led march that ensued was suitably jagged but not as ideally focused as I hoped it to be.  The second hammer-blow did not improve matters from the lower brass (the menacingly snarling bass trombone and tuba in Boulez’s VPO recording is a clinic) but Dudamel did unleash a considerable torrent from the strings’ scales.  The lengthy recapitulation managed to keep me at the edge of my seat, anticipating the final large climax echoed from the start of the movement, now in the doomed key of A minor, the final nail in the hero’s coffin, that was effectively done but with less impact from the tam-tam that was ideal.  At the very final funeral dirge I had no problem hearing the trombones, but Dudamel’s pace was too swift to make the tragedy truly make its mark, and the final outburst was less than cathartic.

The orchestra was at the top of its form, playing with considerable commitment and almost faultless accuracy–indeed, the brass, for the difficulty of its parts, acquitted themselves very well, although the concertmaster’s short solos were too vibrato-laden and brash to my taste.  As you may have noticed, I rarely took note of any special points in Dudamel’s interpretation, and to be honest besides the very well-chosen tempi in the first movement and Andante, almost nothing that Dudamel did–phrasing, tempo transitions, detail–struck me as being particularly outstanding or individual.  Even his conducting seemed less involved than usual.  As it stands, it’s a professional and exciting performance that ultimately struck me as superficial and dispassionate, and at the end of the day, routine and undistinguished.

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Author: Top Ear

Musical hooligans.

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