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
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.
by Dominy Clements