Preparing to attend the second performance that the Vienna Philharmonic is offering at Carnegie Hall this season, I was eagerly looking forward to listening to Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique and to witnessing what I believed will be a battle of wills between a flamboyant young conductor and an orchestra rooted in tradition, choosing not to appoint a music director so that it wouldn’t be unduly influenced and deprived of its specific interpretative style. I even picked a “winner” in my mind, believing that this unique ensemble, being less at ease in the French Romantic repertoire compared with the Germanic one, would be more malleable in Gustavo Dudamel’s hands. Unfortunately, there was little sense of a battle of interpretative ideas. If any swords were drawn, there were too few sparks worth mentioning.

Gustavo Dudamel conducts the Vienna Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall
© Chris Lee

Little of the novelty of this opus, concealed by too much familiarity with it, resurfaced. Surprisingly for a seasoned partnership, there wasn’t a lot of a communicative flow between conductor and orchestra. I’ve listened to Dudamel’s interpretations of Berlioz’s most famous opus when he underlined every weird sonic effect to the point that structures were difficult to recognize. It was an approach that you might not agree with, but an impressive one. Not on this occasion. The rendition started a tad lethargically and directionless. Even the famed Viennese strings failed to charm in “Rêveries–Passions” and in the “Scène au champs” Adagio. There were beautiful individual moments, such as the oboe lament (Clemens Horak), the flutes and the violins intoning the chromatically ascending “idée fixe” or the shepherds – oboe and cor anglais – calling to each other, but they were isolated. The level of adrenalin increased exponentially during the last two movements. Rapid shifts in dynamic patterns and frequent “scene” changes brought an almost cinematic experience. Despite the huge sonic wall produced by the lower brass, leaner sonorities were the prevalent ones, allowing a clearer perception of details. Effects for effects’ sake were rare but not totally absent.

Juxtaposing the music of Berlioz and Mahler makes a lot of sense. As conductor and composer, Gustav Mahler was a great admirer of Berlioz and he conducted the Symphonie fantastique on his second program after assuming the directorship of the Vienna Philharmonic’s subscription concerts (1898). It is true that Berlioz’s mark, quite evident during the Wunderhorn years, somehow waned in Mahler’s later works but the French composer’s influence is palpable in his entire oeuvre, including the  Tenth Symphony. It’s not just about the theatrical flair, programmatic touches or the introduction of more or less explicit autobiographical threads, but also about some very specific elements of instrumentation such as Mahler use of the E flat clarinet – so innovatively employed by Berlioz in the Witches' Sabbath – for its capacity to penetrate through rich orchestral textures.

As carefully and accurately as the symphonic arch was shaped in the Tenth's Adagio, it lacked a degree of tension. On the other side, the excellence of all individual players made the chamber-like textures of Mahler's music shine. The eruption of the organ-like brass chorale from the surrounding string pianissimo was also beautifully rendered.

Dudamel and the VPO offered as an encore Josef Strauss’ Delirien Waltz. Any tentativeness perceivable during playing the Symphonie fantastique dissipated and an enthusiastic public was left in awe of the polished sonic glow stemming from the stage.