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Brett DEAN (b. 1961)
The Lost Art of Letter Writing (2006, rev. 2007) [33:41]a
Testament (2002) [14:41]b
Vexations and Devotions (2005) [36:53]c
Frank Peter Zimmermann (violin), Sydney Symphony/Jonathan Notta; BBC Symphony Orchestra (viola section)/Martyn Brabbinsb; Gondwana Voices, BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus/David Robertsonc
rec. Sydney Opera House Concert Hall, November-December 2011 (The Lost Art of Letter Writing); Studio 1, BBC Maida Vale Studios, London, November 2012 (Testament) and (live) Royal Albert Hall, London, 22 July 2007 (Vexations and Devotions)
BIS BIS-SACD-2016 SACD [86:22]

Over the last few years Brett Dean's music has gained considerable exposure, be it in performances, commissions and recordings. This is the third disc entirely devoted to his music released by BIS whereas ABC Classics have two all-Dean albums. 

The earliest work here is Testament composed for his former colleagues, the twelve violas of the Berlin Philharmonic. Some time later, in 2008, the composer made an orchestral version of this piece and a recording of it is available on ABC Classics 476 3219. The title refers to the so-called Heiligenstadt Testament written by Beethoven in 1802. So it will come as no surprise if the music alludes to or indirectly quotes from the 'Rasumovsky' Quartet Op.59 No.1. This brief allusion or near-quotation is subtly woven in. The music, without being in any way programmatic, may be said to reflect Beethoven's personality through the alternation of vigorous and calmer episodes, nervous gestures and soaring cantilenas. This often beautiful work is superbly served by the committed playing of the viola section of the BBC Symphony Orchestra among which Brett Dean himself appears as tenth viola. 

Dean's violin concerto The Lost Art of Letter Writing is a substantial work in four movements playing for slightly over half an hour. Each of the four movements is prefaced by a quotation from an historical letter whereas the movements themselves are labelled with the place and year of the letter in question. Thus, the first movement (by far the longest) is titled Hamburg, 1854 and is based on a letter by Brahms to Clara Schumann. There he refers to the 1001 Nights; Brahms owned a copy of the tales with a dedication from Clara Schumann.Hewrites: “Would to God that I were allowed this day instead of writing this letter to you to repeat to you with my own lips that I am dying of love for you. Tears prevent me from saying more.” The music briefly references that of Brahms but, again, these are snippets rather than fuller quotations. The writing is impassioned and rises to some powerful climaxes in a mood that may recall the symphonic character of Brahms' own Violin Concerto. The second movement (The Hague, 1882) takes as its point of departure a letter written by Vincent van Gogh to his fellow-painter and mentor Anthon van Rappard. In it he reflects on the eternal beauty of nature being a constant in his otherwise troubled and notoriously unstable life. The composer has described this movement as “prayer-like” and the music is reflective though by no means appeased. The third movement (Vienna, 1886) is the shortest. The idea behind it is an excerpt from a letter by Hugo Wolf to his brother-in-law Josef Strasser, in which he declines to become godfather of the latter's child : “It grieves me, but I know now for certain that it is my lot to hurt all those who love me, and whom I love”. Dean set these words in his own Wolf-Lieder for soprano and ensemble composed in 2006, but I do not know whether he quotes from that very work. The fourth movement (Jerilderie, 1879) brings us back to Dean's homeland, Australia. It refers to a detailed letter written by the outlaw Ned Kelly in which he claims his innocence and lends emphatic expression to his desire for justice. From the very start the final movement is an unstoppable moto perpetuo moving along with remarkable energy. It unrelentingly heads towards the concerto's emphatic, though in no way assertive conclusion. In fact the fourth movement - and the concerto - both end unresolved. Dean's Violin Concerto is a very virtuosic and demanding work in which the soloist is present most of the time with very few pauses for breath. Frank Peter Zimmermann plays wonderfully throughout with immaculate technical assurance and consummate musicality. This is a magnificent work that definitely deserves to become part of the repertoire. 

Vexations and Devotions is described by the composer as a “sociological cantata”. It is a big-boned, large-scale work for mixed chorus, children's chorus, large orchestra and electronics. It sets words by Michael Luenig, Dorothy Porter and additional texts compiled by the composer. The first movement setting a short poem by Dorothy Porter Watching Others opens in the lowest register. This is supported by grumbling and mumbling sounds from the chorus while the music gains impetus. The chorus then enters with a confounding, beautiful setting of Porter's words that clashes intriguingly with the orchestral environment. The poem is about the loneliness and hopelessness of the individual in today's world: “The loneliness, the loneliness/ of watching others on television”. This may also be a reference to the undiscerning attitude of people passively watching either fiction or so-called reality shows without being really able or willing to judge for themselves. The second movement is the only one that has some electronics. These are in the form of recorded messages such as the ones that generally exert an irritating effect when one tries to get some answer to a precise problem and one is being told “to hold on, all our lines are busy”; I am sure that this has happened to all of us. The pre-recorded female voice keeps asking for patience. It is interrupted by a hymn sung by the children's voices. This achieves an estranging effect and it is not clear what its aim is. That voice goes on but progressively derails and eventually collapses into complete nonsense. The children's voices try to impose some renewed order but at first fail to do so until they seem to reach what appears to be a positive conclusion - but is it? The final movement is in two parts, the first of which being made of so-called 'weasel words' of the sort all of us have heard: “We envision to assertively pursue world-class and high-yield solutions for innovative and market-driven one hundred percent customer satisfaction.” This part of the text was compiled by the composer. The second part sets a poem by Michael Luenig The Path to Your Door for children's chorus and orchestra thus providing a more positive conclusion. Vexations and Devotions is an ambitious work but it again raises the question whether music is the best medium to tackle certain issues such as the ones approached here. For sure, this is not the first instance of a work by Brett Dean in which the composer addresses sociological or environmental issues. He tackled pollution in Water Music (2003, rev. 2004) and Pastoral Symphony (2000, rev. 2002), both available on BIS-CD-1576 reviewed here some time ago. So, whether or not the composer succeeds in conveying his undoubtedly sincere 'message' will be a matter for the listener to decide. I for one do not doubt his sincerity and honesty even if I sometimes think that some of the music might have been pruned a bit. This is particularly so in the second movement where the musical argument could have been tightened in a slightly more convincing way. Again, as it stands, this is a very fine and often beautiful work that receives a formidably committed performance recorded at the work's première at the Proms.
 
Although the three pieces were recorded at different times in different venues, there is no noticeable hiatus in the sound as such. In fact personally find it hard to credit that the recording of Vexations and Devotions is a live one made in the vast acoustics of the Royal Albert Hall. All three performances are excellent throughout and Antje Müller's well documented insert notes are another asset to this most welcome and desirable release. It’s possibly the most generous one I ever heard with a playing time well over eighty minutes. There’s no loss of sound quality even when heard on a standard CD player such as mine.
 
This is a very fine and generous addition to Brett Dean's expanding discography.
 
Hubert Culot
 




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