Dean: The Lost Art of Letter Writing

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COMPOSERS: Dean
LABELS: BIS
ALBUM TITLE: Dean: The Lost Art of Letter Writing
WORKS: The Lost Art of Letter Writing; Testament; Vexations and Devotions
PERFORMER: Frank Peter Zimmerman (violin); Sydney Symphony/Jonathan Nott; BBC SO/Martyn Brabbins; Gondwana Voices; BBC SO/David Robertson
CATALOGUE NO: BIS-2016 (hybrid CD/SACD)

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Hamburg, 1854’: the first movement of Brett Dean’s Violin Concerto, is inspired by Brahms’s desperate love-letter to Clara Schumann that year. From its mysterious opening chord, lifted from Brahms’s Fourth Symphony, Dean creates a Berg-like soundscape in which fragments of that Symphony fleetingly or sometimes not so fleetingly swim into focus. It ends poignantly with the soloist (the excellent Frank Peter Zimmermann) winding anguished lines around quizzical comments by Brahms’s clarinets.

A similarly effective tension between classic fragments and Dean’s music features in Testament, based on Beethoven’s despairing letter about his incurable deafness. Dean, once a viola player with the Berlin Philharmonic, weaves wailing and whistling lines from a 12-viola ensemble; through this gauzy texture, hints and fragments of one of Beethoven’s Quartets strain and occasionally erupt, suggesting the miracle that such music emerged despite Beethoven’s emotional and physical misery.

The rest of this CD – including the Violin Concerto’s remaining movements – is more or less unadulterated Dean, intense like James MacMillan but without reaching his level of inventiveness. It doesn’t help that Dean’s inspirations appear comparatively mundane: Vexations and Devotions, a humourless study of contemporary alienation, concerns such banal annoyances as mainstream television and automated telephone queuing systems.

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Daniel Jaffé