If Gustavo Dudamel, the 42-year-old superstar maestro who on Tuesday was announced as the next music director of the New York Philharmonic, is known for anything, it’s the sheer energy of his performances. His body moves with dancerly charisma as his baton conjures extremities of orchestral sound; the music feels alive, and so do you.
The same could often be said for his recordings, even without the spectacle of a live concert. Still, the quality of Dudamel’s catalog is as varied as his repertoire: beloved symphonies, Latin American music and premiere recordings of contemporary works, even film soundtracks. If his Beethoven Nine is overblown, his Mahler Nine is heartbreakingly understated. Almost no album is without something to love, and something to scratch your head at.
Over the years, Dudamel’s recordings have revealed gifts for Tchaikovskyan Romanticism, dancing rhythms and, above all, American music. Here is a sampling of those, as well as some possible red flags for his future in New York.
John Williams: ‘The Imperial March’
Dudamel is a fixture in Los Angeles — not only as the music and artistic director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, a post he will hold through the 2025-26 season, but also as a celebrity conductor who moves easily between the worlds of Hollywood and classical music. Sometimes, he occupies both at once. He is a friend of the film composing legend John Williams, celebrating him on the stage of Walt Disney Concert Hall and recording hits including recognizable themes from the “Star Wars” movies.
John Adams: ‘Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes?’
Dudamel has enthusiastically led the works of living composers, many in world or American premieres. John Adams is a particular specialty; Dudamel was the first to record his oratorio “The Gospel According to the Other Mary” and has led older pieces including “Grand Pianola Music.” (This spring, he will be in the pit for “Nixon in China” at the Paris Opera, where he is the music director.) At Disney Hall in 2019, Dudamel also conducted the premiere of Adams’s piano concerto written for Yuja Wang, “Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes?”
Another of Dudamel’s ensembles is the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra in Venezuela, where he was born. With those players, he has released a lot of music, for the most part in the realm of familiar classics. On the album “Fiesta,” though, they explore Latin American (or Latin-influenced) works including Ginastera’s short but teeming 1941 ballet “Estancia.” The finale, driven by malambo rhythms, is a foot-tapping, smile-inducing explosion of energy, and of life.
Ives: Symphony No. 4
Among Dudamel’s finest recordings with the Los Angeles Philharmonic is a cycle of Ives’s four symphonies, works of pioneering American sound that freely dabble in the melodies of popular and traditional songs. From movement to movement, Dudamel demonstrates a mastery of the music’s mystery, delicacy and deeply felt nostalgia. All those come together in the finale of the enormous Fourth, a layered collage of tunes and textures that, under Dudamel’s baton, feels as unsettled and tenuously harmonious as America itself.
Tchaikovsky: ‘Romeo and Juliet’
Dudamel’s interpretations of Tchaikovsky are not uniformly the best; his “Nutcracker” with the Los Angeles Philharmonic can be missed. (Try instead Simon Rattle’s in Berlin or Valery Gergiev’s in St. Petersburg.) But his penchant for extremity makes for gripping drama and fervent passion in his account of the “Romeo and Juliet” fantasy overture with the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra.
Beethoven: Symphony No. 6
The extremity often employed in Tchaikovsky doesn’t, however, serve Beethoven’s symphonies. Dudamel’s recordings of those works with the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra often lack the breadth of Beethoven’s sound — the wit and joy alongside the darkness of, say, the Fifth. Particularly confounding is an unrelaxed and excitable Sixth that hardly lives up to the symphony’s nickname as the “Pastoral.”
Mahler: Symphony No. 9
When Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic visited Carnegie Hall for two concerts last fall, they ended their first program with an uneven reading of Mahler’s First Symphony. On disc, though, Dudamel proves himself to be a more trustworthy guide elsewhere in Mahler: through the varied moods of the Fifth, with the Berlin Philharmonic, and through the Indiana Jones-like adventure of the Seventh’s Scherzo. He is at his wisest in the Ninth, recorded — touchingly, patiently, unpretentiously — with the Angelenos.
Andrew Norman: ‘Sustain’
Dudamel’s support of new music in Los Angeles peaked with the Philharmonic’s 2019-20 centennial season, which inspired a series of commissions including Andrew Norman’s symphony-length “Sustain.” This cosmic score reveals itself slowly and, at times, unexpectedly. Yet for all its complexity, the music unfurls with lived-in inevitability in this standard-setting account.
Bernstein: ‘West Side Story’
Bits of “West Side Story” have appeared in Dudamel’s concerts before, but he took up the entire score — with propulsive intensity, playfulness and beauty — for Steven Spielberg’s 2021 film adaptation. Here, Bernstein proves a master of different musical idioms; and Dudamel does the same in the recording sessions for the soundtrack, which was made, fittingly, with both the New York and Los Angeles Philharmonics.
Thomas Adès: ‘Dante’
While in Los Angeles, Dudamel unveiled a modern masterpiece: Thomas Adès’s evening-length “Dante,” which Dudamel conducted in its concert premiere last spring after the “Divine Comedy”-inspired work had debuted as a ballet score in London. A recording of it, made at Disney Hall, is set for release in April on the Nonesuch label, but for now, there is a taste in “The Thieves — devoured by reptiles,” the Lisztian 12th section of “Inferno.”