The last time I saw Gustavo Dudamel conduct at Birmingham’s Symphony Hall was in August 2005, when he stood in for an indisposed Neeme Järvi, at the age of 24. It’s astonishing quite how much Dudamel’s star has skyrocketed since then: he’s the closest thing the classical music industry has now to a global superstar conductor, and there was a packed hall in Birmingham delighted to welcome him back.

Gustavo Dudamel © fotoschuster
Gustavo Dudamel
© fotoschuster

It’s hard not to admire Dudamel simply for being a phenomenally successful product of, and ambassador for, an enviable socialised music education system. Now that years have passed since the thrill of the instrument-twirling and Mambos in those defining Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela concerts, Dudamel now regularly conducts the greatest orchestras in the world and must be judged alongside the conducting heavyweights. Though I have had mixed feelings about Dudamel the conductor in the past, his traversal of Mahler’s Seventh Symphony with the Philharmonia would stand proudly among the finest accounts I have heard both live and on record.

Mahler’s Seventh has variously been described as enigmatic, misunderstood and problematic. I have never really struggled to enjoy this work but, out of Mahler’s triptych of purely orchestral symphonies (nos. 5, 6 and 7) between those with voices, it is the one that has the least in the way of trajectory. For example, the Fifth has an easily discernible journey from darkness to light, and the Sixth from grim to, well, grimmer. One problem is the way the movements in the Seventh relate to each other. Mahler wrote the two “Nachtmusik” movements (the second and fourth) first of all in the summer of 1904 but struggled to find the inspiration to write the first, third and fifth movements until the following summer, though these were completed within a matter of weeks. In this context, the “Nachtmusik” episodes can seem like interludes, breaking the flow of the dramatic work proper.

Nevertheless, the Philharmonia under Dudamel gave this work a rare sense of coherence. While Valery Gergiev was recently successful in this symphony (and venue) by driving it forwards, Dudamel’s interpretation was notable for its space and integrity. Though the opening, inspired as it was by the rhythm of oars being driven through water, signified a quicker boat journey than most, there was a broad nobility to the all-important march theme in the winds that followed.

Dudamel ensured that tempo relationships in this huge first movement were always logical, his tightly focused technique a welcome contrast to the more histrionic gestures of his younger days. This ensured that tension throughout the movement was properly cumulative, meaning that Mahler’s climactic suspension at the coda told as it should, without the need for additional agogic emphasis. There was very little manipulation of the tempo: each section segued quite naturally into the next. The overall balance was ideal, the Philharmonia’s virtuosic brass players never dominating the texture.

Dudamel took both “Nachtmusik” episodes fairly briskly – both are essentially Andante, after all. The first was characterised by a childlike quality, particularly in the second subject, which felt like the march of toy soldiers coming and going, Dudamel the never-too-serious bandmaster. With off-stage cowbells evoking Viennese pastures and the central section having a seedy, almost South American tango flavour, this movement succeeded in being a true fantasy, perhaps an apt description of the symphony as a whole.

Perhaps the least successful movement was the central Scherzo. Here Dudamel was trying hard to ensure every offbeat accent counted, and this resulted in some uncharacteristic untidiness in the violins. Nevertheless, there were some outstanding solo contributions from the concertmaster, principal viola, tuba, timpani and bassoons, to name a few.

The orchestra tore into the rambunctious opening of the finale. Again, Dudamel didn’t interfere with the flow of this triumphant passage and he had the very end of the movement in sight, holding the unexpected chord that foils the first fanfare passage long enough so that we knew what was coming at the coda. Coherence was the name of the game, once again, with each bombastic episode seeming to join with the last rather than seeming repetitive and disjointed as is sometimes the case. At one point the timpanist couldn’t suppress giggles at this almost absurdly hyperactive music. Perhaps this music is absurd – but then, as Alfred Brendel recently pointed out on Desert Island Discs, the world is absurd. Mahler’s well-known wish was certainly to capture the world in each of his symphonies.

The return of the first movement’s main theme was preceded by crackling electricity in the playing of the orchestra, and as the coda approached there were smiles all around from the players as they realised what a special performance they had executed. The chord of harmonic oblivion that Dudamel had signposted at the beginning of the movement hung in the air once more, like the absurd world suspended in a bubble, which he obligingly popped with Mahler’s triumphant final note.

****1