Brett DEAN (b. 1961)
Epitaphs for String Quintet [22:10]
Eclipse (String Quartet No. 1) [19:21]
String Quartet No. 2 ‘And once I played Ophelia’ [19:48]
Allison Bell (soprano)
Brett Dean (viola)
Doric String Quartet
rec. 2014, Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk, UK
CHANDOS CHAN10873 [61:50]
The Australian composer and violist Brett Dean certainly seems to have established an outstanding reputation with several acclaimed recordings now gracing the catalogue. Raised and educated in Brisbane, he was a violist in the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra from 1985 to 1999. Since that time he has turned freelance, establishing a home in Berlin. His music draws inspiration from literature, but also comments on social issues. It is intense, sincere and poetic. His compositions include an opera, choral works and solo concertos. In 2009 he won the Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition for his Violin Concerto The Lost Art of Letter Writing (review). Dean is the first composer from Australia to win this prestigious award. His work has been championed by Andris Nelsons and Sir Simon Rattle amongst others.

Composed in 2010 and premiered by the Australian String Quartet in Cheltenham, Epitaphs are five musical obituaries of friends or colleagues who died in 2008-9. Dean joins the Doric Quartet, supplying the extra viola. He aptly sums up the work as ‘a celebration of the personal qualities, characteristics and achievements ... also an expression of loss and contemplations of energetic lives fulfilled as well as lives cut short’. Dean’s string-playing credentials are displayed in the many effects he incorporates into the score – such as harmonics and the requirement of the players to move the hair of the bow across the wood of their instruments. The third movement is dedicated to a cellist colleague from the BPO, Jan Diesselhorst and opens with a cello cadenza, the instrument continuing to have a dominant role throughout the movement. The fourth movement György meets the ‘Girl Photographer’ pays tribute to György Ligeti and the American photographer and arts patron Betty Freeman. She sponsored composers of modernist music like Glass and Reich, and there are echoes of their motoric rhythms woven into the fabric of the music. The fifth movement pays tribute to the conductor Richard Hickox who, up until his untimely death, was Artistic Director of Opera Australia. The movement includes a quote from Dean’s opera Bliss, as it was hoped Hickox would direct its premiere.

Eclipse (String Quartet No. 1) dates from 2003. It draws its inspiration from the Tampa Crisis (2001) in which the Norwegian freighter ‘Tampa’, having rescued 438 refugees from drowning in the Indian Ocean, was refused permission by the Australian government to enter its waters. The Quartet is in three linked sections. The first, marked ‘slow and spacious’, is of a dark, eerie persuasion. From the haunting stillness, tension builds up to an unbearable climax, then is released with pizzicato figures. The solo cello plays a prominent role. In the second section, the atmosphere becomes agitated and restless. There’s a busy undercurrent of incessant character. The final section returns to ‘slow and spacious’, with the music finding some sort of consolation, and finally dying away in peace and serenity.

Following in the footsteps of Arnold Schoenberg, Dean’s String Quartet No. 2 enlists a solo soprano for this 2014 composition. It was premiered in Norwich the same year by members of the Britten Sinfonia and soprano Alison Bell, who features on this recording. It was tailor-made for her voice, harnessing her outstanding technical prowess and vocal agility. She delivers a visceral reading of compelling potency, energy, verve and rhythmic audacity. She employs guttural groans, quarter-tone cries and whispers. The librettist is Matthew Jocelyn, and the work started life as a preparatory study for a ‘Hamlet’ opera he and Dean have been working on. The Quartet certainly delivers a punch in the opening bars. Ophelia, who drowned herself singing, is portrayed not as a victim but as a ‘feistier personality’. We see her through the eyes of the other characters, and the music also depicts her reactions to them. The composer employs many string effects - percussive, metallic and rasping. I found the experience overwhelming.

The assured playing of the Doric String Quartet secures admirable results, and they have been recorded in superb sound. Potton Hall confers warmth and intimacy on the performances and Kerstin Schüssler-Bach’s outstanding annotations are an added bonus. English texts with French and German translations are provided for the String Quartet No. 2. This appealing release has certainly prompted me to explore Dean’s music further.

Stephen Greenbank

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