Tchaikovsky: The Tempest; Hamlet Fantasie-Overture; Romeo and Juliet

Our rating 
3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

COMPOSERS: Tchaikovsky
PERFORMER: Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela/Gustavo Dudamel

There is so much to admire here that it deserves to be emphasised: that this youth orchestra at the pinnacle of Venezuela’s El Sistema music education programme can reach such a standard is a phenomenon in itself. Excessive claims have sometimes been made for Gustavo Dudamel’s conducting in earlier recordings, but there’s no mistaking here that his is a special talent, of the kind that can really make a difference. The ensemble precision of these performances is outstanding, with hyper-accurate woodwind chording. 
While the general octane-level is heady indeed, Dudamel allows his players plenty of time – to striking effect in a strongly characterised, totally non-routine performance of Romeo and Juliet. In phrase after phrase in all of these Shakespeare-inspired works, the musical response is direct, ultra-focused, and where lyrical passion is called for, beautifully memorable. These players know what their profession is about.
So it’s a pity to have to submit that the collective weight and fullness of orchestral tone falls a notch or two short of what’s required at this level (especially given the formidable recorded competition). Perhaps this relates also to the acoustic of Caracas’s Sala Simón Bolívar, or to the way the orchestra has been recorded there. There are slightly too many moments of dodgy tuning too (as in The Tempest’s wonderful opening section, depicting the sea surging around Prospero’s island). That said, the very real strengths of these performances speak resoundingly for themselves: be prepared for the limitations, and you won’t be disappointed. Malcolm Hayes