Three separate standing ovations answered the first concert of the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra's London residency, in which they played Beethoven and Britten with all of their trademark joie de vivre and panache. There was more, though; they played at times with a remarkable delicacy considering their uncommonly large forces, and the Britten in particular showed the individual quality of various players.
The orchestra was particularly full in the double bass section, with ten players for both Beethoven works and fourteen for Britten, making the opening chords of the Egmont Overture wonderfully meaty. The basses powered the orchestra forward all evening, swaying with the music and founding a very rich string sound. The early drama flowed along with muscular intensity before a well controlled middle section, and the coda blazed with visible physicality, storming to its heroic conclusion. Dudamel doubled all wind parts for the whole concert and was never afraid to stamp his thoughts on the music, taking considerable liberties with rubato and dynamics. Though it was a very long way from period performance, the power he brought to the music was astonishing.
Benjamin Britten's Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra was written in 1946 to immediate popularity, and there was something infectiously delightful in the youthful vigour of tonight's performance by what was until recently the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra. The grand opening statement of Purcell's theme took a moment to settle but then set such a powerful standard that when it finally returned in the coda, the sense of resolution was huge. Each of the thirteen variations was good, but those from the violas, harp and timpani were most memorable. The strings accompanied the harp with a beautifully soft shimmer, and the solo timpani playing was brilliantly sensitive to the surrounding music. The highlight, though, came as Dudamel set the fugue on its ferocious way whilst the orchestra interacted in an impressive chamber-music style. He then built tension and sculpted an almighty crescendo from the percussion section as the theme returned gloriously, emerging like a train from a tunnel into a heroic realisation. The string section alone for the Britten consisted of some ninety players. One could expect, then, that the grand tutti passages would be suitably imposing, but more surprising was the remarkable clarity and tight ensemble playing achieved in this excellent performance.
The first half, then, was superb, whereas the second was merely very good. It was hard to find fault with the playing in Beethoven's Eroica Symphony – Dudamel found a good mix of heroism and spritefully transparent string playing – but at times his idiosyncrasies with tempo variation seemed a little excessive and the second movement seemed somewhat short of overall architecture. Nonetheless, this was a very solid reading and only very slightly disappointing by the high standard set by the first half.
The first movement found an elegant touch, never brash, with well balanced tutti passages and a good horn solo leading to its close. There was unforced grandeur in the principal theme, but elsewhere big chords were thumped very forcefully. The funereal slow movement was delayed momentarily by what sounded like a severe asthma attack in the choir stalls. Whether or not this inspired greater pathos in the music would be impossible (and perhaps crass) to say, but the string playing was certainly very effective. In particular, the rounding of phrase ends into silence was well coordinated and quite moving. By sudden contrast, the Scherzo began with the lightest playing one could hope for. The movement danced along with great energy, but Dudamel also highlighted pleasing details in subtle interactions between violin and viola. The virtuosic horn passage in the Trio was well done, adding to a movement full of easy athleticism. The finale, a set of variations on a theme from Beethoven's Prometheus ballet music, felt very well structured in comparison to earlier movements. The musicians were clearly enjoying themselves, looking between each other whilst playing and the whole string section bobbing and waving as one. The Principal Oboe continued his fine playing from the Scherzo, leading with beautiful tone before a grand and stately horn passage. The coda balanced furious string playing with triumphant brass, closing this pioneering symphony in emphatic style. As a whole, this was a very good performance, but just short of the superb first half. The audience jumped straight into a standing ovation, to which Dudamel replied with Elgar's famous Nimrod from the Enigma Variations. After a lengthy silence followed by much cheering, all left with warm smiles, including El Sistema founder José Antonio Abreu.
Southbank Centre: Royal Festival HallBelvedere Road
London Greater London United Kingdom SE1 8XX
Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra, Royal Festival Hall 2009 © Nohely Oliveros