In Recaptured 7th, Echo Of Great One That Got Away

Gustavo Dudamel conducts the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela in a new recording of Mahler's Seventh Symphony.
Gustavo Dudamel conducts the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela in a recording of Mahler’s Seventh.

Mahler: Symphony No. 7. Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela, Gustavo Dudamel (conductor). Deutsche Grammophon B0021550-2

By Richard S. Ginell

DIGITAL REVIEW — Gustavo Dudamel took on a gargantuan task in the winter of 2012, conducting all nine of Mahler’s completed symphonies, plus the Adagio of the Tenth and Songs of a Wayfarer, over a span of 24 days in Los Angeles and in an even more compressed time frame (12 days!) in Caracas. The results — at least in Los Angeles — were all over the board, some symphonies coming off better than others, with all generally reinforcing the view that Dudamel responds best to the Dionysian element in Mahler while diligently attending to detail.

Dudamel Mahler cover 350Using the occasion to add to Dudamel’s slowly-emerging Mahler cycle, Deutsche Grammophon captured the Ninth Symphony with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in L.A. on CD, and then the 1,400-plus-performer Eighth in Caracas on DVD and Blu-ray. The one performance that some of us really wanted to hear again, though, was Dudamel’s electrifying rendition of the sometimes-elusive Seventh with his Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra — and DG has followed through with a belated release of that work on CD.

However, this isn’t the performance I heard in Walt Disney Concert Hall, nor is it the one in the Caracas cycle. Rather, this Seventh was recorded live in Caracas in March 2012, a month after the Mahler Project had run its course. It has many of the qualities that made the Los Angeles performance something to savor: good, taut rhythm in the first two movements, an awareness of the spooky bumps-in-the-night that run through the central scherzo, romantic ardency in the arching climaxes of the second Nachtmusik. The finale remains Dudamel’s best movement: he gets the humor, the wildness, the craziness of it all that has somehow baffled commentators over the decades.

Even so, with all of its positive points, this later performance doesn’t knock me out to quite the degree the earlier one did. It seems more relaxed; the intensity level isn’t as high. Also, the playing of the SBSO is a little coarser than it was in Los Angeles, and Dudamel’s mostly scrupulous observance of detail in the score — which he conducts from memory — is not fully clarified in the Caracas hall (Sala Simón Bolívar) by the engineering.

If only DG had activated its microphones in Disney Hall a few days before, they would have caught a great Seventh in all of its detail, instead of the very good one on this disc.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is also the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America.