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Brett DEAN (b.1961)
Viola Concerto (2005) [25:14]
Twelve Angry Men (1996)* [17:17]
Intimate Decisions (1996) [10:22]
Komarov’s Fall (2006) [7:22]
Brett Dean (viola)
*The Cellists of the Sydney Symphony/Brett Dean
Sydney Symphony
Simone Young (conductor Concerto), Hugh Wolf (conductor Komarov’s Fall)
rec. August 2006, Sydney Opera House Concert Hall (Viola Concerto) and May 2007 (Komarov’s Fall), May 2007, Trackdown Studios, Sydney (Twelve Angry Men),
November 1997, Kammermusiksaal de Philharmonie, Berlin (Intimate Decisions).
BIS BISCD1696 [61:25]
Experience Classicsonline

As the booklet note to this release correctly point out, numerous composers played the viola as their chosen instrument. As well as being an under-rated and somewhat under-used member of the string family, the viola is often a ‘listening’ instrument, placed between violins and cello in a quartet; the middle voice in orchestral strings, supporting and harmonising, but rarely shining as a true melodic voice.

Brett Dean was a member of the Berlin Philharmonic orchestra from 1985 to 1999, so will have done an incredible amount of ‘listening’ in his time. This shows in the remarkable Viola Concerto, which not only provides a vehicle for the composer’s own playing, but is something of a ‘concerto for orchestra’ such are the variety of its colours and textures. A brief opening Fragment sets the mood, its descending lines holding up a mirror to the final moments of the last piece on this disc. This serene mood is set in flight by the subsequent Pursuit. Brett dean describes this movement as “music of jagged virtuosity and rhythmic edginess, the kind of hybrid that might have arisen if Paul Hindemith had played in a band with Tom Waits...” The tumbling intensity of the events in this substantial movement demand and reward repeated listening. There is something of the insistent restlessness in the music which reminds me of Berio’s Entrata, although Dean’s brushstrokes are at the same time broader and his gestures fare more extrovert. The third and final movement is labelled Veiled and Mysterious, and is indeed begins full of secretive and moody col legno tapping in the strings, and slow-motion rises and falls among the winds. Much of the opening music oscillates around a single note, a musette which fragments and develops into something akin to the music in the Pursuit, at least in terms of its gritty intensity if not its headlong pace. The music later calms, to my ears becoming reminiscent of Alban Berg in its late romantic character.

Twelve Angry Men is an apt title for the uncompromising opening of the next piece, written for and premiered by the cello section of the Berlin Philharmonic in 1997. The allusion to the 1957 Henry Fonda film of the same name is deliberate, and this extra-musical reference invites the listener to interpret the voices as those of dissent, and ultimate uneasy agreement. This ‘vocalise’ sometimes manifests itself as gruff grumbling and even quite serene melodic banter, but Dean uses the entire range of the instruments, pushing the timbre into high registers as well as what might be considered a natural range for male voices. This is however a piece which is higher in drama than it is in any kind of melodic expressiveness, and none the less impressive for that.

Intimate Decisions is from a year earlier than Twelve Angry Men, and during a period that saw the composer finding his feet as a composer. Named after a painting by his wife Heather Betts, the title chimes in with the process of writing for a solo instrument, which was “like writing a personal letter or having an intense discussion with a close friend.” Like many good pieces for solo string instruments, you often have the feeling that there is more than one instrument or player at work, and so the sense of inner dialogue is quite convincing. As you might imagine, the virtuoso bravura of the playing matches that of the writing in this piece, and the work comes across not so much as a tour de force as a major world event.

By chance I happen to have recently read the grim novel ‘Ascent’ by Jed Mercurio, whose subject is close to that of Brett Dean’s piece Komarov’s Fall. This commemorates the Soviet cosmonaut Vladimir Mikhailovich Komarov, who died in 1967 during a Soyuz I mission, and therefore having the dubious honour of becoming the first person to die in space. The space ‘feel’ of the music is clear from the outset, with a sense of vastness and the unearthly high peeps of space telemetry signals. ‘Eerie, lonely beauty’ is contrasted with passages of dramatic urgency, reflecting the agitated exchanges between the ship and the control centre on the ground. There is also a brief, chillingly lyrical section which portrays the farewells between Komarov and his wife over the radio link from the control centre. The final dispersion is a moving and effective coda, indicative of weightless demise.

Brett Dean’s music impresses with a vivid imagination and ear for dramatic gesture. These gestures are no means empty, having the force of highly skilled orchestration and craftsmanship honed by years of practical experience. Don’t expect welcoming and singable tunes or foot-tapping grooviness, but do expect to have your earbuds ticked and tantalised, stimulated and ransacked for sonic superlatives. This is serious music but seriously good: and as you should expect and demand, seriously well performed and recorded.

Dominy Clements


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