Gustavo Dudamel / Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela

Mahler 5

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Gustavo Dudamel's rise to fame has been rapid, and his exceptional abilities have been extolled by musicians and critics alike; figures as prominent as Simon Rattle, Daniel Barenboim, and Claudio Abbado have praised his conducting, and he has been the subject of numerous glowing articles in the media, notably Time Magazine and The New York Times. So how does this youthful Venezuelan conductor fare in his 2006 recording of Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 5 in C sharp minor? Due to its phenomenal popularity, this piece has become an acid test for conductors everywhere, and recording it has practically become de rigueur, so Dudamel faces a great deal of competition from the myriad recordings on the market. Yet he makes his version with the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela noticeable in three important ways. First, he freely shapes the music with an elastic sense of phrasing, using a great deal of rubato in the service of Mahler's wide mood swings, apparently in an attempt to stay true to the spirit of the music, if not necessarily its letter. Secondly, Dudamel's approach is quite dramatic and sweeping, and his prolongations of gestures for dramatic effect and distinctive scene-painting make the symphony feel cinematic, almost as if Mahler had composed it to accompany a film. Third, the orchestra shows high energy and volatility, signs that Dudamel has inspired it to a high level of enthusiasm and bravura playing. All this is good to an extent, as far as flexibility, theatricality, and excitement always work in performances of Mahler's Fifth. However, there are perhaps too many distinctively shaped moments, as if Dudamel has played with moods and effects too much, and not paid sufficient attention to ensemble cohesion, pacing, and significant details in the orchestration that must be drawn out. One may get the feeling that he tried too hard to make this performance stand out from all the rest, and in the process delivered a Fifth that doesn't really hold together through its internal logic, but depends far too much on the conductor's whims and personality. This CD may appeal to some uncritical Mahler fans, but since there are many better recordings, don't let it be the only one you hear.

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