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Is Dudamel really so good? Some comparative listening

With all the super duper hype and excitement surrounding the arrival of the Los Angeles Philharmonic's new Music Director Gustavo Dudamel, there have been both enthusiastic endorsements of his work and callous dismissals.

I thought it would be interesting to listen to a few snippets of the L.A. Phil's recent performance of Mahler's Symphony No. 1 under Dudamel, alongside matching clips from two other performances.  But to really make it interesting, I've picked what are widely considered two of the finest performances of this piece available: a classic live recording of the Bavarian Radio Symphony led by Rafael Kubelik (1979), and a late recording from Leonard Bernstein, leading the Royal Concertgebouw (1987). 

First, an excerpt from the first movement:

Kubelik, clip 1

Bernstein, clip 1

Dudamel, clip 1

The most noticeable difference among all three is pacing, but one thing Dudamel does quite differently is a vivid management of texture, clearly adjusting balance so that, for instance, the winds are at the forefront when appropriate--he consistently pulls string sections back in a way I've not heard anyone else do, to great effect.

Now a bit from the second movement, a transition that provides opportunity for many different decisions on the part of the conductor (as you'll hear):

Kubelik, clip 2

Bernstein, clip 2

Dudamel, clip 2

While all three are lovely, all three are quite different!

Finally--after listening for subtleties--here's a clip from the middle of the last movement, the big climax before the big, big climax at the very end.  This section is deceptively treacherous: while it's obviously exciting, it's also actually kind of thinly scored and so must be handled carefully with regard to pacing so that a proper impact is achieved.  How does Gustavo compare?

Kubelik, clip 3

Bernstein, clip 3

Dudamel, clip 3

Of course, to really get a sense of this tremendous piece and the very different ways conductors approach it, you should listen the complete performances--you can download the Dudamel/L.A. Phil performance here.  You'll find the Kubelik here and the Bernstein here.


What do you think Sims?

I think that the Mahler performance that Dudamel led is one of the most exciting readings of a symphonic work I've ever heard, and that it holds up well next to these iconic recordings. That it holds up at all, let alone well, is astonishing (he's 28!!).

This is fantastic - thanks, Stuart!

I really dug Dudamel's performance when I heard it, but I was surprised at how much I enjoyed his choices in comparison like this. I especially liked his bringing that winds tune out more in that first excerpt. I looked at the score, and the winds are actually marked a notch higher than the strings, which Kubelik and Bernstein seem to ignore -- so, score a point for Dudamel. Even better, they're marked p and pp respectively. Yet in all three recordings, everyone seems to be playing at least a mf. (Sigh.)

Glad you like! The biggest difference I notice is that Dudamel tends to think about musical energy in terms of line rather than phrase, that is, he thinks more holistically. So where Kubelik and Bernstein craft lovely melodic phrases, it seems to me that Dudamel considers the melodic phrase as only part of the musical energy, and guides the line/pacing/weight/etc. accordingly. It makes for a much more satisfying, unified performance IMO.

I loved this exercise, but on one level its meaningless to comment on balances since the producer of the recording may have significant control over that in post production. Who knows what the mic arrays were like for these recordings?

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