The inspirational conductor holds onto his fine reputation.
Daniel Ross 2011
Is it too early for a backlash against Gustavo Dudamel, the flame-headed inspiration to a nation? Now that his beloved Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela have dropped the 'youth' tag, it seems that what was once so vigorous, special and dynamic about the whole proposition has lost its sheen somewhat – if you believe the press. As recently as 2010's wonderful Rite of Spring disc they've proved to be a formidable ensemble under Dudamel's direction, but the opening strains of this Shakespeare-themed disc of Tchaikovsky works are worryingly ponderous.
Rather than evoking a specific mood, one that perhaps mirrors the gloom and unease of the play's beginning, the Hamlet Overture-Fantasy feels specifically non-specific to begin with. Thunderous timpani rolls are one thing, but the strings are a leaden accompaniment that doesn't match their intensity. It takes a good few minutes for Dudamel to establish any kind of clarity, thanks in part to the arrival of a languid, focused woodwind section, but once he has it under control we can relax once again and enjoy this subdued and subversive work.
The Tempest, conversely, features more of the vim we're accustomed to. Blaring brass trades blows with the strings in the brilliantly controlled mania of the middle section, and calms with alarming contrast for the whispered, spooked conclusion. It is typical of Tchaikovsky to undermine his own works with inescapable darkness (exemplified in the finale of his sixth symphony), and to this end the Simon Bolivar are not the most natural of fits, but they manage an encompassing change in mood that is most effective.
That leaves the most well-known of these three works, and Dudamel’s Romeo & Juliet decides early on to do away with much of the schmaltz it has become associated with (i.e. every romantic scene in every comedy film, ever). Focus turns to the chugging, warring strings that pollute the middle section and evoke the well-spun tale's myriad heartaches. Still, the fawning nature of the love theme is inescapable and needs to be made as sweet as possible. It is perhaps not the most appealing of the works here, but there's still plenty of panache to enjoy. Dudamel is by no means lacklustre here, he's just about holding on to a reputation that anyone would struggle to live up to.