The Wunderkind has come of age! Gustavo Dudamel, the young, Venezuelan conductor known for his flashy and energetic performances with the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra, and, since 2009, as music director with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, has turned in a deeply considered performance of Gustav Mahler’s profoundly personal symphonic statement. The recording captures the 32-year-old (31 at the time of this live concert recording) tackling repertoire conductors 20 years his senior are just now finding themselves ready to take on.
Begun in 1908, the year following the death of his 4-year-old daughter from scarlet fever and the diagnosis of his own heart defect, and finished in 1909, Mahler’s last completed symphony is tinged with an awareness of death. As such, the music is full of extreme contrasts depicting enjoyment of the pleasures of earth with stark reminders of the inescapability of death. Mahler’s musical quotations illustrate well these contrasting themes – motifs from Beethoven’s “Les Adieux” (“Farewell”) sonata and Johann Strauss Jr.’s waltz, “Freut euch des Lebens” (“Enjoy Life”) in the first movement, and his own “Kindertotenlieder” (“Songs on the Death of Children”) in the finale.
Dudamel projects a clear sense of direction through this tumultuousness score by keeping focus on the through line, by an uncluttered presentation of Mahler’s often dense counterpoint, and by projecting a forward motion with tempos that never sag. Dudamel and the orchestra excel in the second movement particularly by bringing a sweep and grace to a succession of earthy and elegant, and increasingly frenetic, dances.
Dudamel manages to strike the right balance of light and darkness, tranquility and foreboding, in this performance. Dynamic contrasts are well managed and orchestral buildups exciting and well-timed. While the spectre of death often makes its appearance with violent outbursts, it never completely overwhelms the musical narrative. With the last notes of the finale fading into oblivion, Dudamel has made a convincing case that Mahler has ultimately come to terms with death’s inevitability. Death would in fact come for Mahler in less than two year’s time.
The Philharmonic plays marvelously throughout this performance, in the sumptuous acoustic of the Disney Concert Hall, and keep in step with Dudamel all the way. The recording marks a giant stride in the evolution of this charismatic and electrifying young conductor. Gustavo Dudamel’s mature reading of this masterwork should win him many new admirers. Future releases in his Mahler Project are well worth anticipating.
Here is Gustavo leading the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra in 2010: