There’s no question that Gustavo Dudamel is a force for good in our beleaguered musical world. Quite apart from his hope-restoring work with young people, anyone who can make a modern symphony orchestra play with such alert freshness, gorgeously differentiated sound and ardent expression has to be welcomed. Such qualities are hard to resist in concert, but don’t make sure-fire winners when it comes to recommendable recordings of specific works.
Take Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony: the opening hushed string tremolo is enticingly mysterious, and the horn theme sounds through it majestically. As the music builds its first big crescendo violins and oboe strain to make sure we don’t miss the feeling. There’s clearly a lot more to this Bruckner than sonic architecture – and again, full credit for that. But the general deliberateness of the tempos – including the Scherzo – seems to work against all this, pulling the music down even as it strives to ascend. There are some wonderful things in the Adagio particularly, but not ultimately the feeling that we travelled very far which, after well over an hour’s music, is frustrating. There’s also a strange metallic shimmer over some of the sounds: for example the first of the angelic string chords at the heart of the Adagio.
The Nielsen and Sibelius Symphonies are more successful, and the start of the Poco adagio from Nielsen’s Fourth shows how right Dudamel’s approach can be when passion and purpose combine. But that’s the point: sometimes they don’t. The Inextinguishable’s big tune sails into port magnificently at the end of the symphony, but the getting there was less impressive than it should be – in strong contrast to Colin Davis’s LSO Live version (Orchestral Choice, March 2011). The Sibelius too is impressive in the moment. In the end though, perhaps this is a case of too many climaxes and not enough climax. Stephen Johnson