Retro Beethoven & Wagner from Dudamel & the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela

Concert review: Gustavo Dudamel & the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela performing Beethoven (Symphony No.5) & Wagner (Orchestral extracts from the Ring Cycle), Royal Festival Hall, January 8th 2015

Photo: Southbank Centre (southbankcentre.co.uk)

At £85 for a top-price seat at Thursday night’s RFH concert, you’d be forgiven for expecting a lot of bang for your buck; luckily, Gustavo Dudamel and the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela were clearly set on delivering a great night for the eager audience, many of whom had booked their tickets a year in advance.

While the Beethoven and Wagner programme was very different from the modernist and Latin American works with which many of us would associate them, Dudamel and his band nevertheless brought a strong, Stravinsky-like rhythmic assertion to their performance, particularly in the Beethoven; the fugal trio of the scherzo exhilaratingly took off like a runaway locomotive. There were just a couple of untidy moments during the course of the evening but they in no way distracted from the energy that the ensemble brought to each work.

And yet, despite their usual fresh and punchy style being present in abundance, the overall feel of the concert was so old skool that the programme notes might have been written in Latin on a piece of slate. To be fair, this probably shouldn’t have come as a surprise, given that a Beethoven symphony followed by glorious gobbets of Wagner could be straight out of a Toscanini or Klemperer concert.

That the concert would have a retro feel was clear from the very moment that the orchestra appeared on stage – a full-bodied string section and quadruple horns and woodwinds – in a 21st century performance of Beethoven! Dudamel seemed to be channelling the super-conductors of yore in his choice of sometimes extreme tempo changes and heavily underlined contrasts. And leaving out the repeat in the final movement of Beethoven’s 5th has always been a predilection for maestros who believe that dramatic momentum should take priority over what the composer actually wrote.

However, with the exception of the second movement of the Beethoven, where a little more tempo variety would have reduced a slight feeling of blandness, this performance style was thrilling and ironically felt completely fresh, mainly down to the fact that nowadays you are most likely to hear only lean, pared-down historically informed performances of Beethoven. Despite the big sound, Dudamel kept a clear focus on the detail and a mark of a great performance is that you should always hear something that you had never noticed before, as happened for me in some of the horn and woodwind lines (helped, no doubt by the fact, that there were so many players for them).

Nevertheless, this definitely wasn’t about Beethoven the classicist, the man who wrote music of undoubted emotional power yet first and foremost music that was carefully defined by well-established structures; this was Beethoven the prophet of Romanticism, pre-figuring Wagner in his elemental fury and defiance of fate and as such the perfect set-up for the second half of the concert.

The assembled big band for the Beethoven had grown to a phenomenal size at the end of the interval, barely contained by the RFH stage. Opening the sequence of Ring orchestral extracts from the Ring Cycle was the Entry of the Gods into Valhalla, the climactic scene from Rheingold. Dudamel resisted the temptation to take the Bolivars to 11 on the dial, keeping their full power in check for later, but as such it felt a little underwhelming.

They really came alive in the second extract, Siegfried’s Rhine Journey from Götterdämmerung: big, big brass in the heroic Siegfried motifs and a stunning appearance of the Rhine music. This was followed by the hero’s Death & Funeral Music, which fully explored the triumph and tragedy of the scene.

I am not usually a huge fan of the Forest Murmurs which followed – it’s a bit too chirrupy for me – but that rhythmic crispness came to the fore again in the strings of the opening and reminded us of just how weird Wagner’s harmonic and tonal effects can sound.

The Ride of the Valkyrie was a crowd-pleasing finish to the sequence – I was fortunate enough to be sitting next to a chap who merrily hummed along through most of it – and was suitably bombastic in its tone although still sharp on detail of the scoring.

Always noted for their generosity in encores, the Bolivars were persuaded by the applause to give us one last chunk of lusciousness, the Liebestod from Tristan & Isolde. A fitting end to a concert where there was clearly a lot of mutual love in the hall.

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Published by

K O'Neill

I am a classical music enthusiast and a lover of choral music in particular. I run the Polyphony Down the Pub social/singing night, probably the most thrilling singing-Renaissance-motets-in-the-backroom-of-a-pub experience you could ever hope to have.

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