The principal excitement of this three-disc set involves watching (and judging) how the wunderkind Gustavo Dudamel fares outside the most obvious corners of the symphonic repertoire. This grouping of late Romantic and (for the most part) tonal 20th-century symphonies, undertaken with Sweden’s Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, is unquestionably ambitious. Bruckner’s unfinished final masterwork is full of thick tutti chords that you’d think would appeal to the young showman conductor. But Dudamel’s is also a slooow Bruckner 9. That’s not always a bad thing — there are some beautiful moments here on the first disc — though the players occasionally seem so lost in the conductor’s tweaking of tempi that the piece’s big moments have neither Jochum’s paint-peeling intensity (with Staatskapelle Dresden) nor the dark grandeur Karajan drew from the Berlin Philharmonic’s strings (in their 1966 recording).
Dudamel and the Gothenburg players fare far better on the next disc: This Sibelius 2nd is a head-turner. The deliberateness of this performance feels almost spitefully tough at times. Sibelius’s third movement is marked vivacissimo, but here it comes across more vicious than vivacious. It’s a bracing recording, hurt not at all by the live recording acoustics. (All three discs were culled from recent public performances.) The third disc is taken up with two Nielsen symphonies — the 5th comes first, then the 4th. Nielsen’s drastic changes of mood aren’t to everyone’s taste, but it’s here that Dudamel gets to indulge his love affair with fine-tunings and shadings on the fly. Dudamel will no doubt return to some of these pieces (it’s hard to imagine he won’t want another crack at the Bruckner), and then we’ll have the satisfaction of comparing this document against his fast, all-consuming intelligence and the lessons it’s absorbed in the interim.