Brett DEAN (b. 1961)
Etüdenfest (2000) [10:30]
Shadow Music (2002) [16:22]
Short Stories (2005) [12:07]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Adagio molto e mesto
from String Quartet No. 8 in E minor, Op. 59 No. 2 'Rasumovsky No. 2'
arr. B. Dean for flute, clarinet and string orchestra (2013) [11:37]
Brett DEAN
Testament (2008) [13:56]
Magnus Sköld (piano, Etüdenfest)
Swedish Chamber Orchestra/Brett Dean
rec. May/June 2015, Concert Hall of the School of Music, Theatre and Art, Örebro, Sweden.
BIS BIS-2194 SACD [65:40]

Brett Dean is one of the ‘cool kids’ when it comes to contemporary composers, and with recordings of works such a his Viola Concerto and Water Music on the BIS label, also with the Swedish Chamber Orchestra, a durable and fruitful collaboration can be said to have been established.

This is another high-quality production, with the secretive string murmurings of Etüdenfest providing a tonal sound-field out of which surprise accents leap like the solo ensemble in a modern concerto-grosso. This turbulence uses “mismatched snippets of the standard string étude repertoire”, turning “the monotonous, individual fate of a practising musician into a vibrant shared experience.” Turbulence gives way to repose and rising tensions build to a mighty climax into which the pianist is thrown, heroic but outnumbered in the final minute.

According to Brett Dean, Shadow Music is “in no way consciously descriptive’, but in its three movements can be heard realizations in sound of various concepts and definitions of the word shadow, such as ‘dark shape or partial darkness’, ‘the shadow of his former self’ and ‘indistinct, suspect’.” The work has three movements. Prelude opens with grimly violent low winds, brass and timpani from which emerges a rich expressionistic orchestral statement depicting “an area of shade, dark shape or partial darkness.” Forgotten Garden is marked ‘veiled and dark’, and is a spooky place indeed with water gongs providing unearthly glissandi over moody orchestral sounds that suggest the struggle of order over nature, the power of decay and encroaching chaos winning out to render the garden “the shadow of its former self.” Voices and Shadows has an equally ghostly opening, the atmosphere this time conjured with soft harp glissandi, strange rustling percussion and the haunting rattle of col-legno strings. This all coalesces into a passacaglia over which a dark, post-Bergian drama unfolds, plays out, and recedes into silence.

The title Short Stories might suggest literary references, but is connected more with the genre itself; a usefully condensed form which can be about anything and take virtually any form. These ‘five interludes’ are indeed brief and concentrated, though the titles are highly suggestive. Devotional has a powerful quasi-chorale around which the strings rustle and pluck like twitching net curtains. Premonitions is an energetic and cinematically dramatic miniature, while Embers explores string sonorities to create a moment of timeless atmosphere from which a dying fire “gives off its final occasional sparks.” Komarov’s Last Words at over three minutes is the longest of these movements, recalling the fate of Russian cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov, the strings creating signals in space, developing into ‘a belligerent uprising’ of perilous violence, and expiring with a final ‘lost in space’ passage of scary effectiveness. The final Arietta is a movingly beautiful cantilena that is never allowed to live out its full, dreamy existence undisturbed.

The title Testament refers to Beethoven’s ‘Heiligenstadt Testament’, a letter intended for his brothers but never sent. The arrangement of the Adagio molto e mesto from the String Quartet Op. 59 No. 1 acts as a preface, the string orchestra also including a melifluous significant clarinet and flute part that provides a transition between the two pieces. Beethoven’s lyrical and deeply expressive adagio is taken over by Dean’s musical portrayal of “Ludwig’s imagined quill writing manically on leaves of parchment paper”, as well as taking an uncomfortable look at deafness, with notes that suggest tinnitus and the disturbed, de-tuned perception of sounds from the outside world. Fragments of Beethoven’s own music filter through to create a feeling perhaps of receding inspiration. Beethoven never gives in however, and defiance takes over from the muddy physical world, plunging headlong into a time of “acceptance and a fresh start.”

As already stated, this is an all-round high-quality release with some potent music and superlative playing and recording. The SACD sound imagery is vivid and deep. BIS’s support for Brett Dean’s work is very much to be applauded and collectors should have this disc high on their wish lists.

Dominy Clements

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