At just 32 years of age, Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel is already the hottest property in classical music. Both on the mean streets of Caracas with his Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra, and closer to Hollywood Boulevard with the LA Philharmonic, who’ve just re-signed him as Chief Conductor until 2019, and even over in Gothenburg in Europe, he’s presiding over a musical revolution. And his Mahler recordings have already played a big part in it, whether it’s the Fifth Symphony with the South American kids, the live DVD of the Eighth, or various download-only recordings of other Mahler masterpieces, all given extraordinarily compelling readings.
But none of those previous releases could truly prepare you for an encounter with this, Dudamel’s first full-scale Mahler CD with the LA Philharmonic in arguably the greatest symphony of them all, the Ninth. Recorded live last year before an audience with jaws on floor at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, it is incredibly well played (with Australia’s own Andrew Bain on first horn) and beautifully recorded by the Deutsche Grammophon engineers.
But it’s Dudamel’s command of the overall architecture, and in particular his unerring sense of momentum, taking it beyond simplistic discussions of tempo choices, that really sets it apart. This is a Mahler 9 that has all the heart-on-sleeve of Bernstein’s and all the drama of Rattle’s, but which has something even more important – a sense that this is not an ‘interpretation’, but rather Mahler’s own music speaking by itself in all its grandeur and magnificence.
It starts right at the top, when that sighing, wistful, regretful descending motif suddenly explodes into a shriek of anguish at the 3-minute mark, and then for the next 80+ minutes, there is not a bar that doesn’t propel itself logically into the next one, the music following not some metronome marking but the very contours of its own breath. Even when, at the opening of the finale, you wonder if it isn’t a bit quick and perfunctory, it’s soon revealed that the point was to tumble down the rabbit-hole into the wonderland of perhaps Mahler’s finest single symphonic movement, played here in a manner that ultimately makes time stand still.
Mahler himself never got to hear his Ninth Symphony performed, and thus never revised it, but had he encountered Dudamel’s noble, masterly and profound reading of it, it seems impossible that he would have wanted to change a note of it.