“TCHAIKOVSKY & Shakespeare” = TCHAIKOVSKY: Hamlet: Fantasy Overture, Opus 67; The Tempest, Op. 18; Romeo and Juliet: Overture Fantasy – Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela / Gustavo Dudamel – DGG 4779355, 61:25 ***1/2:
Now that the hype surrounding Gustavo Dudamel has settled and we’re past the initial critical reaction through which the supposed Wunderkind came in for his belated critical lumps, more judicious appraisal is possible. Like most conductors young or old, he has his triumphant and his not-so outings, and the critical consensus seems to be that here is a very talented young musician still with a thing or two to learn about conducting.
Apparently, the orchestra that shared his first big recorded success (Fiesta of 2008), the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela, has matured along with him, being renamed the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra. They play well, making a suitably grand noise in Tchaikovsky’s outsized tutti, though solo work, especially from the winds, in the quieter passages such as the lead-up to the love theme in Hamlet is not as suave and rounded as it might be. However, the playing is as accomplished as we hear from many other less-than-top-tier orchestras who have recorded this music with some success. In Hamlet, I’m thinking specifically of the Russian National Orchestra, which recorded the piece, also for DGG, under Mikhail Pletnev. This may not be the finest performance available, but it was reviewed pretty favorably and happens to be a recording I had on hand. While I find little to choose between the playing of the two orchestras, I think Pletnev manages to inject somewhat more tension and thus drama into the “conflict” music that dominates the piece. But Dudamel’s is certainly a respectable performance if not top-of-the-line.
In Tchaikovsky’s much earlier tone poem The Tempest, Dudamel convincingly portrays the latent menace felt by the ship’s crew at the beginning of the tale and then builds the storm powerfully—aided by DGG’s vivid large-scale recording. The love music for Ferdinand and Miranda is sensitively done, and if the conflict music that follows is almost too manic, hey, Gustavo is famous for his volatility. Overall, this is the best performance of the bunch, and I’ll probably turn to it whenever I want to hear Tchaikovsky’s take on Shakespeare’s late romance.
With Romeo and Juliet, we have a classic work that has received more than its share of classic or near-classic recordings, including an SACD version, with the Russian National Orchestra this time under Vladimir Jurowski (Pentatone), that’s reportedly a knockout. I can’t say the same about Dudamel’s version though again it’s decent. However, Friar Lawrence’s music, which opens the piece, is just a tad sluggish, lacking in reverential dignity, and there’s an odd restraint to the following section that portrays the rancor between the Montagues and Capulets. More successful is the famous love music, delicately shaded and nicely sustained, even if the strings don’t match Muti’s Philadelphians on a classic EMI recording. The reprise of the fight music has more excitement, making for a strong finish, and that bass drum surely has its say!
I don’t want to be too hard on Dudamel’s performances, which are certainly respectable. In Romeo and Juliet, however, the competition is fierce, and the current recording doesn’t match it. But given that the other two tone poems receive fine performances—all captured in spacious, atmospheric sound—this recording is a good way to get to know Tchaikovsky’s Shakespeare-inspired music, as well as get acquainted with the work of a gifted young conductor.
— Lee Passarella
An excellent survey of a favorite Chopin genre…