I love music.

I write about the music I like and have purchased for the benefit of better understanding it and sharing my preferences with others.

Dudamel and Beethoven

A colleague recently lent me her copy of Beethoven's "Fifth" and "Seventh" symphonies, performed on DG by the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra (Venezuela), directed by the young conductor, Gustavo Dudamel. Not only had she gushed about it (young, energetic, bold), but so had others. What struck me so much about the orchestra at first examination was their sheer size. Coming from the historical/authentic/needs a better name background I adhere to with baroque music, this is a large orchestra. And to boot, it's a youth orchestra. Dudamel Who cares what it sounds like. John, why say that? You're reviewing a recording! Let's look at the recording from another angle. As the CD booklet suggests, some of these student-musicians are "off the streets," and performing in the orchestra gives them a sense of purpose in life. By any measure, these are poor young musicians, living in South America, and they are championing western "Classical" music. If I could think of the appropriate fable or tale, I would... but it seems here we have an instance of the "children" waking us up and pointing "over there" (at classical music) and telling us (our society, at least from the U.S. perspective, old, gray-haired, and rich) "we can do this too." And the reviewers might hopefully say "oh, and you do it well, too." Question what you will about the repertoire: they chose well-loved and extremely well-written music to perform. Not bad when you're trying to get noticed. The first thing I noticed were tempi. The 5th symphony for me was a tad slow. But how can you possibly keep everyone together at a faster clip with so many string players? I think that is my biggest gripe about the entire recording: too many musicians. That's hardly an awful thing, but it is likely the root issue when I find other issues to mention. Tempos in the second work are slow(er) too, save for the last movement. There's no right choice, of course, but I always think Beethoven sings better when he's had a kick in the knickers. Symphony 7, second movement. What a dark, gritty, low sound the lower strings have. The numbers here allow for a great crescendo. But the tempo is too slow. The tempo might work if we were watching something (a drama, a film, perhaps) but alone, it's like waiting for your entrée to come in a restaurant that has a serious backlog in the kitchen. The third movement has an appropriate tempo to start, but I can't help but feel in the slower section, we're falling aslseep with a giant, a giant that simply is too loud when it's supposed to get crescendo. But if you wanted speed throughout, advance to the ultimate track. Certainly no one has performed Beethoven's seventh so fast, even though he called for Allegro Molto in the last movement. Dudamel and Company give us that, for sure. So fast, the horn players (for me, the real protagonists in this movement) can't get all their notes spoken clearly (or defiantly). Is it messy? A little bit. But what of course is special here is that they do it... young musicians... a young conductor... it's absurdly fast, but oh isn't that fun? It certainly is! No doubt some of them had smiles on their faces the whole time... For me, I thought the album would be about the conductor. I think it is, but it really is more about this young youth orchestra. While their size may prevent them from being truly agile, they can play with passion and power. Do they over-do-it at the end with some suspect intonation? Yes... but what speaks better for passion and power than a few rough edges? It's Dudamel I come back to in the 5th symphony, then, to ask "Why the last movement at this speed, if you guys can play faster?" Is it an artistic decision? A pragmatic one? His artistic decisions that are well-heard (articulation, certain emphases) are interesting, for sure, but it is difficult to point out the conductor from the orchestra. Or should we? The brass coming in in the middle of the last movement of #5: way too loud! And the tempo getting faster once the full forces come back in? If we're going to measure this recording against international standards with professional orchestras, then yes, there is much to criticize. For instance, some portions sound rather mechanical. Some times, the group simply is putting out a bit too much power. The upper woodwinds (flute, especially) outshine their counterparts in brass. I found this recording: interesting. It was fun to listen to. And that might be the ultimate compliment. It had me thinking... considering.. thinking about what I knew about performing, conducting, and about Beethoven. I think he would have been pleased. Dudamel will more ultimately be judged in his new role in Los Angeles. Who knows what will become of the S.B.Y.O.? For young musicians, they are missing the suave aspect that likely comes with maturity. But they can sure play. If they can morph that into a more "organic" or "smoother" sound, they would be truly world-class. This recording won't be for everyone. But if you are the type that can't have "too many" of a particular work, and admire Beethoven's 5th and 7th, this might be for you. It certainly is entertaining to compare this track, with that. And what comes about is a great appreciation for the composer's art.

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