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Brett DEAN (b. 1961)
Beggars and Angels (1999) [26:10]
Amphitheatre (2000) [10:34]
Ariel’s Music (1995)a [24:39]
Paul Dean (clarinet)a
Melbourne Symphony Orchestra/Markus Stenz
Rec. Robert Blackwood Hall, Monash University, Melbourne, November 2001
ABC CLASSICS 476 160-6 [61:23]


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Trained as a professional viola player, Brett Dean has been Principal Viola in the Queensland Orchestra for four years before joining the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1985. In 2000 he left Germany and returned to Australia to become a full-time composer. He has already composed a number of works that have put him firmly on the map. Some of them have also made their way onto record, but the present is, I think, the first all-Dean CD to be released.

The earliest piece here is the clarinet concerto Ariel’s Music, composed in 1995 for his brother, the clarinettist Paul Dean who has previously recorded the piece with the Queensland Symphony Orchestra conducted by Richard Mills (ABC Classics 456 678-2). It was written in memory of a young American girl Ariel Glaser who died from AIDS and of her mother Elisabeth who managed to raise $30 millions for paediatric AIDS research before falling victim to the virus. Dean’s clarinet concerto is in two movements of fairly equal length, but of quite different character. The first movement Elegy, roughly in arch form, opens somewhat hesitantly and leads into a more animated central section alternating violent outbursts, restful pauses and some skittish episodes before ending as a sad, forlorn dirge. The second movement Circumstances, that the composer describes as a Todestanz (“Dance of Death”) is a long, furious, at times grotesque, scherzo in all but name. It has many contrasting episodes and culminates in a massive tutti moving into a long sorrowful coda of great beauty.

According to the composer’s own words, Beggars and Angels resulted from his being “intrigued by the apparent opposites – but uncanny similarities – of the sculpted beggars (by Trak Wendisch) and painted angels (by Dean’s wife, Heather Betts)”. One of the angels adorns the cover of this disc having originally been seen in an exhibition held in Potsdam. Beggars and Angels is a substantial piece for large orchestra including a vast array of percussion, the whole often used in arresting and inventive ways. The basic material is drawn from a piece for solo viola Intimate Decisions (1996). Not knowing this piece, it is hard to find out how this massive orchestral fresco relates to the viola piece; perhaps however this is not all that important. The intrinsic qualities of this imposing piece and of the other pieces recorded here, are what really matters: a remarkable orchestral mastery, invention, imagination and a great expressive strength. Though in one single movement, the piece falls into two main sections. After a pensive start, the first section unfolds with many varied and contrasted episodes, some violent climaxes and abrupt changes of mood. The second section is, on the whole, calmer and more sparse. The piece ends with a beautiful, eerie coda harking back to the opening music, brings proceedings full circle. An often very beautiful, and quite impressive work that undoubtedly deserves wider exposure.

Amphitheatre, the most recent piece here, is also cast as a single movement in arch form. It was inspired by Michael Ende’s book for children Momo (that – I must confess – I do not know) describing the ruins of an ancient Roman amphitheatre on the outskirts of a large, modern city. The music, however, is not programmatic, but rather evokes the strong, massive architecture of the amphitheatre and its past glories; you will not hear the sounds of the Roman legion marching down the Via Appia as in Respighi’s Pines of Rome. The piece opens with oscillating chords “portraying the amphitheatre’s massive blocks of stone” amidst the stillness surrounding the place. “Reminiscences of past glories” soon become prominent with brilliant, sometimes menacing fanfares, bringing a drastic mood change. About halfway through the piece, the music “freezes”, in a beautiful episode of great calm.

Dean’s music was new to me, although I had recently heard another piece of his, Winter Songs for tenor and wind quintet (on BIS CD-1332) that I found quite attractive and really well made. These sizeable orchestral scores are quite beautiful, superbly crafted by one who has acquired a deep feeling for telling orchestral textures, gained from his experience as a professional orchestral player. But there is much more than that in his highly communicative and expressive music wonderfully served by the players. This is a most desirable release, for here is a composer who obviously has things to say and who knows how to say them in the best possible way.

Hubert Culot 






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