COMPOSERS: Brett Dean
ALBUM TITLE: Brett Dean
WORKS: Epitaphs; Eclipse (String Quartet No. 1); String Quartet No. 2 ‘And once I played Ophelia’
PERFORMER: Allison Bell (soprano), Brett Dean (viola); Doric String Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: CHAN 10873
Brett Dean is not shy about revealing what his music is ‘about’. Whether inspired by certain individuals (as in Epitaphs), or by an ecological or human disaster (as in his String Quartet No. 1, on the now all too topical plight of refugees), Dean’s works are usually – perhaps invariably – driven by extra-musical narratives. Rather than tease out any innate structural puzzles or tensions, his music typically falls into short little dramatic narratives – no movement on this disc lasts as long as eight minutes, many of them rather less than five.
The most obviously successful work here is Quartet No. 2, ‘And once I played Ophelia’, effectively a dramatic scena. Its soprano soloist is no mere extra voice (as in Schoenberg’s Second Quartet) but the leading protagonist. Allison Bell’s genuinely affecting performance is backed by the Doric Quartet’s expressionist scampering and sustained harmonies, the strings occasionally coming to the fore in the manner of a Schumann-style song postlude. Much of the effectiveness of other works relies on Dean’s colouristic and expressive inventiveness (recalling James MacMillan, though without his knack for sustained lyricism), as well as the listener’s ability to tune in to its emotional soundworld. Daniel Jaffé