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Wednesday, July 24, 2013

DVD Review: Bigger Than Infinity

Gustavo Dudamel conducts the Mahler Eighth.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Conductor Gustavo Dudamel. 
Even when it is measured against Mahler's other nine enormous symphonies, the Symphony No. 8 in E is ambitious. Working in a white-hot creative fever in the summer of 1906, the composer discarded traditional symphonic form for a two-part structure. Part I is a gigantic setting of the medieval hymn "Veni, creator spiritus!" a massive opening shout that can deafen an audience and overload even the most durable speakers. Mahler follows this peroration with a Part II that is twice as long: a setting of the impenetrable (and very mystic) final scene from Part II of Goethe's Faust.

In 1910, the concert promoter Emil Gutmann billed Mahler's new symphony as the "Symphony of 1,000". Although there may have been as many as 1,015 musicians and choristers at the Munich premiere, the nickname stuck. Today, most performances are mounted on a modest scale, usually with 300-350 singers and players.

That is not the case here.

This performance, filmed in Caracas, Venezuela has conductor Gustavo Dudamel leads an army of 1,400 choristers, musicians and singers, including the complete forces of the Orquesta Sinfónica Simón Bolívar and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. (Mr. Dudamel is music director of both ensembles.) The combined forces set a Mahlerian world record.

Numbers aside, this is a strong, robust performance, full of the passion and vitality that are Mr. Dudamel's greatest gifts as a conductor. The fortissimo climaxes are all sonic overkill, thrilling in the opening moments of the hymn but repetitive and ultimately grating at the end of the first movement. However, the delicate orchestral fugue right before the coda hints at the real treasures to come, and the quiet portrait of Goethe's mystic mountain landscape that opens Part II is simply harrowing in its stark beauty.

The events depicted by Goethe in the finale of Faust are a long way from the beer cellars of Wittenberg or the court of Helen of Troy. In this final tableau (published only after the poet's death) the soul of the wayward scholar is finally elevated to Heaven. It is a long, hard road filled with symbolic characters, choirs of "most perfect" angels, and a guest appearance from the Virgin Mary. It is small wonder then, that this movement is where most conductors meet their doom.

In keeping with the spirit of youth and freshness, Mr. Dudamel chose younger, lesser-known soloists. The results are generally good, with exceptional performances come from soprano Julianna Di Giacomo (Gretchen) and tenor Burkhard Fritz (Doctor Marianus.) Mr. Fritz makes the most of his two long solos in the second movement. Bass Alexander Vinogradov makes a memorable Pater Profundis and Keira Duffy is stellar her brief role as the Mater Gloriosa (the Virgin Mary.)

The four choruses (the singers are stacked in 23 rows at the rear of the stage) are omnipresent, whether adding a mighty shout of humanity to the opening bars or taking the part of angelic choirs in the second. Mr. Dudamel recruited his choristers from the Venezuelan El Sistema music schools. In the spirit of egalitarianism, all 23 estados of Venezuela are represented. The two orchestras cooperate in a thoroughly professional manner, creating a mighty support for the choruses through taut, close cooperation. The whole is shot in crisp digital video, with enough closeups of players and faces to maintain visual interest.

Mr. Dudamel demonstrates that he knows (and more importantly) understands the essential nature of this score, the closest thing to an opera that Mahler ever wrote. He keeps the story moving along, creating narrative drive with his baton and drawing finely detailed playing from the double orchestra. In the final Chorus Mysticus, Mahler adds adds an offstage brass band to the final notes. Even this doesn't faze Mr. Dudamel: he leads giant ensemble with surety through the last, crashing chords.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.