The Middle Path
Since Gustavo Dudamel started making regular guest
appearances with the Berlin Philharmonic, he has included several Mahler
symphonies in his programmes – recordings of the Third and Fifth
were released on the orchestra’s Mahler box a few years ago – and his
performances have suggested a conductor for whom the vast, self-contained
worlds of Mahler’s scores hold no particular threat. This is not to say he
treats them casually; rather he is able to create an impression of having such
a firm handle on the music that even its wildest, least-predictable moments
emerge as part of a greater order. In performance, Mr Dudamel is able to
conceal years of study and hours of rehearsal behind an ease of manner that can
make the symphonies seem effortless.
If Mr Dudamel’s Mahler is often brilliant – and invariably accessible – there have been moments in the past where it has all seemed a bit too tidy, where the cultivated balance has overwhelmed the potential for genuine danger. For his recent performance of the Second, however, he delivered a reading in which the moment-to-moment thrill of bringing the music to life eclipsed any hint of mannerism. Although never chaotic, and certainly never idiosyncratic, Mr Dudamel’s obvious affection for the score, combined with playing of extraordinary dedication from the orchestra, yielded a “Resurrection” full of vitality and unexpected warmth.
The opening movement set the tone for the evening: from the outset Mr Dudamel established a moderate pace that conveyed the insistence of the opening section without feeling rushed; within his highly controlled tempi, however, were countless subtle shifts in mood and emphasis, and much of the movement shuttled back and forth between moments of convincing ferocity and lofty nobility. The structural authority in Mr Dudamel’s reading did not prevent the movement’s individual episodes from achieving a remarkable immediacy of feeling, although even in the most explosive passages, the sound of the full orchestra remained carefully balanced. The strings, on their own, had a rich, expansive presence, and the brass, while arrestingly powerful, were only rarely allowed to dominate.
When the first movement was over, Mr Dudamel left the stage, allowing for something close to the five minute pause that Mahler himself suggested should preface the remainder of the symphony. Yet after the excitement and relative spontaneity of the opening movement, the second felt slightly too measured: the pace was deliberate, the elegant string phrases a touch over-sculpted and the prevailing sense of tranquillity heightened to the point where it no longer seemed natural. It had moments of considerable beauty and the final section achieved its own particular grace, but it remained the sole part of the evening that never quite settled into itself.
The third movement, however, was a delight. It opened with the heavy step of a country dance but pivoted almost immediately to fluid undulation, suggesting that the first half of the movement belonged among the pantheon of great programmatic rivers. With no loss of momentum nor any obvious shift in pace the arrival of the brass fanfare altered the prevailing mood yet again to one of exultation, building eventually to a climax of terrifying volume while losing nothing in sonic clarity; and as the movement receded, it seemed to foreshadow the darker moments in the first half of the fifth movement. In the fourth movement, which featured superb playing from the trumpets, Okka von der Damerau gave a reading of the text that derived its force less from the meticulous shaping of notes than the unadorned clarity of her delivery; instead of adding her own layer of emotive gloss to the words, she approached them with an almost ascetic simplicity.
After only a breath of a pause Mr Dudamel launched the orchestra into the final movement. The opening section settled quickly into a mode of sustained tension – from which there emerged a flawlessly played solo trumpet passage and beautifully rounded playing from the trombones – but built steadily towards a triumphant climax. The march section was even more invigorating, making few attempts to conceal the thrill that can be found even in Mahler’s most anguished expressions. While there have certainly been readings that make a more persuasive case for the structural unity of the symphony’s long conclusion, Mr Dudamel devoted his energies to extracting as much brilliance as possible from the individual episodes; but rather than robbing the movement of its tragic severity, Mr Dudamel’s obvious delight in the passages of greatest immensity achieved a strangely affirming cathartic power.
If the second half of the movement held few surprises, it was also difficult to fault: the basses of the Rundfunkchor gave warmth and depth to the sound of the full ensemble and Nadine Sierra floated lines of radiant piety just above. Although Ms Sierra approached the text with an appropriate solemnity there was an animation in her delivery, impossible to conceal, that gave her solo passages an edge of rapture and seemed to anticipate the symphony’s transformation from sorrow to joy. Ms von der Damerau gave the ‘O Glaube’ section a reading of heightened urgency and when she and Ms Sierra sang together – after a stern ‘Bereite dich’ from the choir – their overlapping lines conveyed a sense of blissful transfiguration.
As with any Mahler symphony, there can be no
definitive performance, and while many conductors have used heightened
contrasts to great effect, Mr Dudamel had little trouble establishing a
consistent middle path between exaggeration and understatement. Yet the
assurance in his reading never came at the expense of genuine excitement; for all
the effort that may have gone into finding the right pace and striking exactly
the right balance between orchestral sections, what made Mr Dudamel’s
performance so invigorating was his obvious enthusiasm for the score and his
ability to convey its magnificence directly to the audience.