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Brett DEAN (b.1961)
Viola Concerto*+ (2005) [25:31]
Twelve Angry Men for twelve cellos (1996) [17:28]
Intimate Decisions for solo viola+ (1996) [10:30]
Komarov's Fall - Music for Orchestra^ (2006) [7:34]
Brett Dean (viola)+; The Cellists of the Sydney Symphony/Brett Dean;
Sydney Symphony/Simone Young*; Sydney Symphony/Hugh Wolff^
rec. Sydney Opera House Concert Hall in August 2006 (Viola Concerto), May 2007 (Komarov's Fall); Trackdown Sound Studio, Sydney in May 2007 (Twelve Angry Men); Chamber Music Hall of the Berliner Philharmonie, 5 November 1997 (Intimate Voices).
SYDNEY SYMPHONY LIVE SSO20070/BIS CD 1696 [61:05] 

 

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The artistry of Brett Dean – violist, conductor and composer – is the subject of this latest release on the Sydney Symphony's in-house "Sydney Symphony Live" label.  The first and last items on the disc were recorded live in concert in the Sydney Opera House concert hall, while the other two items are studio recordings.
 

Australian by birth, Brett Dean built the early part of his musical career in Germany and joined the Berlin Philharmonic as a violist in his early 20s.  His parallel career as a composer took off in the 1990s.  As the last century drew to a close he left the Berlin Philharmonic to focus on composition, though he maintains a busy schedule as a soloist, chamber musician and conductor. 

His musical language is cosmopolitan – less bound up with the soil and sun of Australia than that of many of his compatriots, but still flecked with bright colours amidst the chattering ostinatos and close discords.  His command of the orchestra is assured, with richly imaginative writing for strings spiced with evocative splashes of colour from winds and tuned percussion. 

The disc opens with Dean’s viola concerto, with the composer as soloist.  The booklet notes refer to the first movement as a "satellite of serenity " before the second movement's hectic pursuit.  True, it is serene by comparison and Dean's viola line is warmly lyrical, but the undercurrents here are dark, foreboding and otherworldly.  The viola is like an Orpheus descending into Hades.  The orchestra snipes at the viola in the second movement, but after the initial onslaught the soloist holds his tormentors at bay.  The movement ends enigmatically with an energetic passage suddenly launching itself into empty space.  The mystery of the first movement returns as the opening bars of the third movement.   Dean's breathing is audible, though I did not really notice it except when listening through earphones.  Audience noise is a little more intrusive – although the recording is rather close to minimise this the coughers pick quiet moments.  Again, this was less of an issue when listening on speakers rather than through earphones.  The Sydney Symphony are committed to each bar throughout this fine performance under the attentive baton of Simone Young. 

The other viola work included here, again performed by the composer, is Intimate Decisions.  Composed (as the liner notes disclose) out of his response to a painting by his wife, Heather Betts, this rhapsody for unaccompanied viola is a challenging and intensely personal addition to the repertoire.  Insistently assertive passages arise out of tender reflection and give way to gentle rumination, all flowing naturally from Dean's own bow as if he were speaking rather than playing. 

Separating the viola concerto and Intimate Decisions on this disc is Twelve Angry Men, an extended tone poem for twelve cellos inspired by Sidney Lumet’s 1957 film of Reginald Rose’s play.  The piece begins with hasty, angry dissonance out of which rises the lone, questioningly lyrical voice of the dissenting juror.  While the piece does not appear to trace the chronology of the story exactly, Dean conveys its drama admirably, juxtaposing confused and heated argument with mournfully dissonant solo passages that suggest the claustrophobia and, ironically, the loneliness of the jury room.  Throughout the piece that questioning, lyrical line becomes stronger and stronger – not in volume, but in its quiet ability to silence the other voices.  The Sydney Symphony’s cellos, under the composer's direction, sculpt a dramatic performance. 

The disc concludes, fittingly, with Komarov's Fall.  Unless I am mistaken, this piece is the only item on the disc that is not a world premiere recording.  It was written in response to a commission for an “asteroid” to complement Sir Simon Rattle's 2006 recording of Holst's Planets with the Berlin Philharmonic.  While there is an asteroid called Komarov, Dean's music is concerned not with that rock, but with the unfortunate Soviet Cosmonaut whose name it bears.  Vladimir Mikhailovich Komarov was sent into space in 1967 in a Soyuz spacecraft known to be unsuitable for manned flight.  He died as it burnt up on re-entering the earth’s atmosphere, a sacrifice to the political point scoring of the Cold War's space race. 

There is elegance and eeriness to Dean’s piece.  It begins in silence.  Then, almost imperceptibly at first, single notes from the strings begin to chisel at that silence, in imitation of telemetry signals, the sounds of satellites.  The only percussion Dean calls for in these early bars is the barely audible rustle of aluminium foil.  An agitated rhythm first tapped out on the woodblocks then begins to permeate the orchestra, building through woodwind chatter into massed percussion, but falling away as a gentle lyrical passage began, representing Komarov's goodbye to his wife.  (She had been brought to ground control for a final farewell when it became obvious that Komarov was doomed.)  Goodbyes said, the agitation and anger build again to a strident climax before the nothingness of destruction: high voices climb ever higher, while low voices sink to inaudible depths.  Again there is a little audience noise but not enough to be really distracting.  The orchestra, under Hugh Wolff this time, is wonderful. 

I was privileged to attend the concert at which this performance was recorded.  Hearing it again on disc, I remain impressed by its coherence and terse emotion. 

This is an astute release, which showcases a distinctive and interesting composer.  Robert von Bahr obviously agrees – he has licensed the disc for international release on his BIS label.  Make sure you hear it.

Tim Perry

see also Review by Dominy Clements





 


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