Top positive review
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A major musical event
on 10 October 2012
Gustavo Dudamel's Mahler First on DVD was, as Clive Goodwin points out, quite disappointing: focused on superficial effect rather than substance, especially in comparison with the stunning Dvorak "New World" he recorded with the Radio Symphony Orchestra Stuttgart (Birthday Concert for Pope Benedict XVI). One could then suspect that the young conductor had not quite plumbed the depth and idiom of Mahler's musical language. So it was with slight trepidation when I ordered the disk, but everything fell into place happily when I played it the first time around. If you want to know my own personal ambivalent feelings about the Eighth - Mahler's last, gargantuan and somewhat desperate fling with late Romanticism - do read my reviews of the Bernstein (with the Seventh) and Tennstedt (with the First) readings on DVD, both noble and persuasive performances, though now dated in audio and video. The outstanding recent recording by Chailly and the Gewandhausorchester brought the oratorio-symphony much closer to me: it is wonderfully exuberant, highly disciplined at the same time and always conscious of the various structural layers, the shifts in mood and the balances between human and instrumental voices, not to mention the virtuosity of all involved.
Dudamel has assembled more than 1000 participants: Mahler's dream is finally realized in our time. The rehearsals must have been grueling. As it turns out, the recording of these two orchestras combined into one big happy band, the very fine (perhaps not altogether outstanding) soloists and the army of choristers - no small feat indeed - is surprisingly clear, though certainly not lean. Video is very good. Dudamel has a firm and thoughtful grip on the proceedings, he obviously knows the music very well, his body language is appropriate and he appears to be in touch with every group, even each individual musician. This is quite amazing. His approach to the score may not be as detail-focused as Chailly's and Tennstedt's - let's say it is slightly more synthetic than analytical - but not a single note is lost or glossed over.
From the initial organ chord and jubilant orchestral-choral bars, the mood of the Veni Creator Spiritus is joyous, festive and simply overwhelming. You can almost see Mahler smiling down from Heaven. The Second Part, based on Goethe's Faust II, much less compact and somewhat problematic to carry off without dragging, is played and sung very well indeed. Every nuance of pain, love and ecstasy is shaped beautifully and the ending - Faust's deliverance after his 100-year quest through time, life, guilt and redemption - is apocalyptic. Next to the soloists, who give their all, the various choirs shine out, in particular the children, without sheet music, obviously rehearsed splendidly and fully transported by the spirit of the occasion. Brava Venezuela for these beautiful musical youths! All in all, this adds up to a stunning and deeply moving performance you don't want to miss. It goes, together with Chailly, to the top of my Mahler shelf - after I listen to it at least once more.