Bruckner Symphony 9 / Sibelius 2 / Nielsen 4 & 5
Gustavo Dudamel

When a conductor allows the release of a collection like this, they are making a major assertion—and taking a huge risk, given the inevitable comparisons. All four works, two of the very finest symphonies of what we might call the ‘modern’ era and two close runners-up, have a long historic association with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra—effectively the Swedish national symphony—which explains why they are collected together here, in live recordings made over a two-year period. His Artist of the Year Award from the Gramophone Magazine notwithstanding, I was unsure whether the Venezuelan Gustavo Dudamel would be the equal of such a challenging program.

Listening to Dudamel’s reading of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony was a strange experience. Although I had not really considered it before, all the Brucknerians I admire, for instance Boulez, Celibidache, Giulini, Mravinsky, Wand, only turned to his music in their later years, and there is usually a sense of sober resignation about their readings. Dudamel’s, by comparison, is a youthful, rather assertive version, and is so unprecedented in my Bruckner experience that I remain unsure whether I actually like it or not. He manages to make the magnificent first movement muscularly urgent and expansive, unlike the ponderously brooding monolith I am used to. The central Scherzo is exactly as one might expect: powerful, rapid, and highly kinetic. It is the closing Adagio, one of the high points of all music, that I find most problematic, though, in that although Dudamel takes a very slow, broad, tempo, his reading lacks the impassionedness that one requires of this movement—the slowness feels calculated, almost contrived. In order to sustain the tempo Dudamel adopts a slightly detached progress from event to event which makes for great rhythmic clarity—necessary at such a slow pace—but imparts an austere, abstract quality to the music. This is a most effective performance, certainly, but rather lacking in what one might call ‘soul’.

My enjoyment of the Sibelius Second Symphony was somewhat qualified by the recorded sound which seems to me a tad raw. This could be an accident of the acoustic, or it being differently miked to the other pieces; on the other hand, it did bring to my attention the slightly edgy woodwind sound that Sibelius invokes, often engineered-away in studio recordings. Emotionally, Dudamel chooses to emphasise the more austere qualities of the work, and his reading leaves one slightly cool—this is distinctly not one of those cosy, amiable performances one often encounters. I rather enjoyed its bracing aloofness.

Dudamel takes the Nielsen Fifth Symphony at a hectic tempo, which makes for a certain amount of unevenness in the manic woodwind skirling of the first movement, but generates great excitement. Even in the slower mid-section the tempo remains tight, giving the music a powerful sense of momentum, and the effect of the sidedrum threatening to disrupt the proceedings is genuinely disturbing—as indeed it should be. The winding-down to the pensive clarinet solo seems provisional, unfinal,which is appropriate, as, after a brief pause, the broader and more declamatory second movement plunges away indomitably. When it does finally settle into an uneasy, Brittenesque, arioso, Dudamel is able to imbue the music with a shadowy, yearning, melancholy. Unsurprisingly, Dudamel’s Nielsen Fourth Symphony, the Inextinguishable, (unusually placed after the Fifth), also begins with a headlong rush, but quickly subsides into a mellower tempo, allowing of a more sensitive exploration of the work’s alternately hesitant and confident emotional world.  He provides a well-sculpted and absorbing reading, and the orchestra clearly respond empathically to his direction. The climax, when it finally comes is perhaps a little underwhelming. Surprisingly, the Latin Dudamel seems temperamentally entirely at home in Nielsen’s expressive, maverick, Northern music, showing real understanding of its gestural eccentricity, whether encouraging his woodwind and percussion sections to cut loose uninhibitedly, or sustaining an sense of unease in the strings.

The recordings vary somewhat in finesse, from the extraordinary Nielsen Fourth, where one can hear the keypad impacts on the clarinets, to the slightly wooden sound in the Sibelius Second. Oddly, all the applause has been suppressed, which seems increasingly the fashion in our live-recording-dominated era; I would personally have liked to have at least the immediate audience response as a natural flow-on from the performance. I would not recommend these as one’s first recordings of the works, for that one might perhaps  pick Giulini on DG for the Bruckner, Colin Davis’ recent outing on LSO Live for the Sibelius, and Ole Schmidt on Unicorn, now Regis, for the Nielsen. But Dudamel’s orchestra responds enthusiastically to his direction, and,as fertile and instructive alternative readings by a conductor of real promise, these are well worth the modest price.

Review reprinted with permission of Thomas’ Music.