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CD Review

Pictures at an Exhibition

DGG 4796297
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Gustavo Dudamel
Deutsche Grammophon 4796297
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"Youth is no guarantee of innovation" says James Bond to Q in the critically-acclaimed thriller Skyfall. It's a terrifically delivered line by actor Daniel Craig, but also drives home a point. Classical music is not immune to falling in love with the new and shiny, even in a genre that tends to thrive on the old. Gustavo Dudamel is young enough that he'll still be called "youthful" for the next decade and a half or so, and his vigor and commitment to his communities capture audiences everywhere. Unfortunately, his efforts on disc continue to be frustratingly uneven.

Before commenting further on the conductor, I want to point out how ill-suited the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra is for this music. Looking at the discographic history of both the Mussorgsky compositions and the ensemble itself, the last two conductors to tackle this music with this orchestra were Gergiev and Previn. Both on Philips at the time, they had access to Kirov (Gergiev), Pittsburgh and Los Angeles (Previn). Naturally, both men chose Vienna, and, as if more proof were needed, it's abundantly clear that the orchestra is uncomfortable with the percussive and intensely rhythmic pieces here. The drums sound timid, the chimes are audible but utterly joyless. There is some lovely wind playing and the strings are utterly secure when playing slowly. The brass is neither assertive nor interesting. The overall impression – in A Night on Bald Mountain, especially – is a fish out of water. Deutsche Grammophon has far better versions around of each of these chestnuts, many of which are still in print. Oh, the disc is also criminally short, at just a few seconds past 50 minutes. It would be even shorter if it weren't for the Tchaikovsky, which is insulting in the sense that the whole suite could have been included with little problem. It's a nice encore (does anyone play this music more beautifully?), but it feels tacked on. What we have here is essentially an LP, and not a very good one.

Dudamel stays mostly out of the way, but also proves mostly disinterested. The notes – which say nothing about the music and everything about Dudamel's career and (admirable) work with the children in Vienna featured throughout the project – concern the conductor's love for collaborating with the orchestra. The problem is that none of that love shines through. Like the conductor's utterly hapless Strauss disc, there is no evidence that Dudamel has any affinity for this music. As a young and exciting superstar in an aging field, you'd think he could make his mark on showpieces. Instead, his work on behalf of John Adams and some Scandinavian composers easily warrants more attention. Remember that the Strauss program talked endlessly of tradition and the legacy of the Berlin Philharmonic orchestra. This project has a similar feel, and is just as unsuccessful. The sound is also nothing to write home about, though the strengths and weaknesses of the ensemble are audible, for better or worse. Dudamel's commitments to charity work and the betterment of the world are outstanding, but his musical legacy still leaves much to be desired.

Copyright © 2017, Brian Wigman