In Barcelona, Gustavo Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela have started a short tour, also taking in Hamburg and Vienna, where he is performing the complete Beethoven symphony cycles across five concerts. During previous days of this marathon, Dudamel has described it as “climbing Everest”. It is, he says, a milestone in the career of the orchestra. Let’s say it right from the beginning: the performance was brilliant.

Gustavo Dudamel © Nohely Oliveros
Gustavo Dudamel
© Nohely Oliveros

It was not the first time I've seen Dudamel and Bolivars performing Beethoven’s Fifth, and my memories were not the best. I remembered the orchestra was oversized and unbalanced (too much brass), so I was a little afraid before this concert began. But it was evident from the very first bar that, in the intervening years, the sound of the orchestra has evolved. It has the same ability to deliver a joyful, energetic, fresh performance, but at the same time now it is able to create subtler nuances with a more balanced sound. The result is impressive.

Beethoven’s Fifth is an amazing journey from C minor to C major, standing on the shoulder of one of the most popular musical motifs ever. Destiny hammers at the door of humanity. It is difficult for an orchestra to sound fresh and different in such a well-known score, but Dudamel found his own voice. Articulation and phrasing are probably the main responsible for this. In this movement, he required the players to sound sharp, a little bit rough, even violent. This way the tension was even more evident and Dudamel and his orchestra found a way to maintain this. 

With about thirty violins on the stage, plus a really generous number of violas, cellos and double basses, there was another doubt: would the orchestra sound balanced in the second and third movements, which are not tense but subtle, almost like chamber music? The answer was one of the best surprises of the night. Their pianissimos were just breathtaking. It is admirable how Dudamel has found a way to create a delightful, brilliantly soft sound. The central fugato of the third movement was unbelievable and unforgettable. Although he chose a very quick tempo (even quicker than the last movement), the musicians dealt with it, allowing us to discover new sonorities in the score. In contrast, the last movement was played a little bit slower than usual, putting the accent not on the rhythm in the strings, but in the subtleties of the woodwinds.

The lovely Pastoral Symphony is an icon of programmatic music, but for some it lacks the dramatic tension of most of the other symphonies. Dudamel offered a colourful reading of the score. Joy was present throughout his interpretation, and it seemed he conducted with Berlioz in mind. Once again, articulation and accents gave him the chance to bring to our attention details that usually remain hidden. For example, some moments in which the flutes imitate birds in the first movement. With Dudamel, these birds become protagonists in the action, and it was delicious. In contrast, the storm was as scary as Beethoven probably wanted, with the powerful colours in the double basses.

Dudamel’s version of the Pastoral is not a canonic one, if you understand the canon as recordings of, for instance, Herbert von Karajan. Dudamel and his orchestra are not Germans, as is evident from their sound every single second. But who says it’s not good to change the canon? In their hands, Beethoven is full of the joy you don’t always find in other performances, even if sometimes it sounds a little too violent. There could also be controversy in the tempi. Playing the Fifth’s third movement quicker that the fourths is strange, but in fact both are Allegro, and the third is a Scherzo. Why not? Dudamel puts musicality first, no matter what metronome says, and his account was extremely consistent from the first note to last.

There’s a bust of Beethoven next to the stage of the Palau de la Musica Catalana. It seemed to me that, for a moment, he smiled.