Mahler's Symphony No. 7, with the Philharmonia and Gustavo Dudamel
The Venezuelan conductor performs at the Royal Festival Hall, London
Gustavo Dudamel leapt to fame as the prize jewel of El Sistema, conducting its flagship Simon Bolivar Youth – now Symphony – Orchestra. Colourful jackets, a party atmosphere and exuberant Latin American encores all captured the popular imagination. Now, though, he cuts a more serious figure both on paper and on the podium – while he still conducts his superb Venezuelan ensemble, he's at the helm of the LA Philharmonic, has recently recorded with the Berlin Philharmonic and has been spending a lot of time conducting Mahler - and earlier in the year released a recording of the grave Ninth. On stage, his manner is restrained and focused.
For his appearance with the Philharmonia, Dudamel turned to the Seventh Symphony, played to a packed-out Royal Festival Hall. It's an enigmatic and extreme work, large-scale enough to fill a whole concert by itself. Dudamel and the Philharmonia's reading was bold and clean, with something of the sleekness of the LA Philharmonic sound: the brass and woodwind were bright and fearless; there was a wonderful impassioned double-cello solo in the second movement; and in the fourth, the strings sounded generous, eking out all the heightened expression from their melodies. Dudamel found a military precision in the opening march, movement endings were whipcrack tight and perfectly timed, and the Rondo Finale bubbled with relaxed frenzy and a sense of increasing excitement.
But for all that it was an enjoyable performance there was a crucial element missing throughout. Mahler wrote two 'nachtmusik' movements (the second and fourth) full of nocturnal atmosphere and colour. They characterise the whole Symphony. Dudamel didn't find that darkness, the shadowy half-lights to throw into relief all that brightness. Partly that might have been due to the Festival Hall's dry acoustic. Mostly, though, it seemed a result of the interpretation.
For a performance that really gets to the heart of Mahler's all-encompassing world, Dudamel needs to embrace the dark as well as the light, the ambiguity as well as the certainty.
You can hear this concert on the BBC's iPlayer now