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Dudamel takes a surprisingly inward and successful look at the Mahler 9th
on 19 February 2013
While Gustavo Dudamel's rise has been fast and dazzling, many will be surprised that at his young age he feels prepared to tackle Mahler's 9th, a symphony that deals with darkness and death. But Dudamel has to his credit an exciting 5th with the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra, a recording that made it clear he connects with Mahler's abandonment. Here he's conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic, a wise move for DG, since I'm not sure a youth orchestra could accurately plummet the work's seriousness. (We'll see how the Simon Bolivar Orchestra fares in the Mahler 7th, which DG releases later this year.)
But moving on to the interpretation in question, Dudamel's timing of 29 minutes for the 1st movement leans on the slower side. Dudamel doesn't drag, though. Instead, he finds throbbing passion, often to the point of sounding heartbroken. I was deeply moved by his ability to build on Mahler's long melodic lines. Dudamel lets the line expand with fervency that makes the work feel vast. His intensity keeps his slow tempo from becoming ponderous and it helps that he makes the most of the climaxes. I'm very impressed, but quite surprised. Instead of aiming for explosive excitement, Dudamel took an inward look. (It's in this movement that I pick up on some creaking noises during the climaxes that recur in some of the following movements. It's a minor complaint, but one worth noting for those who want perfect sonics.)
I agree with the previous reviewer who remarked that Dudamel doesn't accept Simon Rattle's view that the Scherzo is everything Mahler hated about the country while the Rondo-Burleske is everything he hated about the city. Rattle's look at these movements was biting and intense to the point of exhausting the listener. Dudamel decides to sound more optimistic, and his lack of strong irony makes these movements sound almost cheerful. That's not code for bloodless, though. I enjoyed the 2nd movement especially, finding its airiness refreshing. Dudamel tinges the work with an extra strong sense of melancholic yearning. Instead of sounding desperate and gloomy, we enter a world of confidence threatened only by the foreboding sadness. In all, this is a lighter look but one so inspired I can't complain about missing drama.
I'm not sure the 3rd movement works quite so well. Dudamel remains poised and alert, and doesn't go for violent assaults the way Bernstein, Rattle, and Gergiev did, to list a few of his predecessors. But along with Dudamel's newfound intrinsic sensitivity comes the ability to draw attention to the raw grief that's hidden between the lines. When we're on a visceral ride that pushes the limits of sanity we don't notice these details. My only complaint would be that there's not enough contrast with the previous movement, but that's a quibble.
Moving into the Adagio, we've grown accustomed to Dudamel's sound world, which is more about inner intensity than obvious bravura. The previous reviewer who spoke of Dudamel's "respectful tenderness toward Mahler's setting sun" encapsulated the basic sum of what this movement means to Dudamel. It's calm and reflective, not the lunge of fraught emotion that Bernstein delivered in Berlin. It's in this movement that I miss the best European orchestras, but Los Angeles' playing is always accomplished. For me, what made this movement a success was Dudamel's tenderness that turned it into an elegy notable for poignant resignation.
I'm pleased to greet this disc with my most enthused recommendation. I can't properly stress how surprised I am that Dudamel took this thoughtful, mature view. It's hard to comprehend that this sublime reading came from a conductor barely in his thirties.