SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews

BRETT DEAN: The Lost Art of Letter Writing; Testament for Twelve Violas; Vexations and Devotions – Frank Peter Zimmermann, violin/Sydney Sym./Jonathan Nott/BBC Sym. viola section/ Martyn Brabbins/ BBC Sym. and Chorus/Gondwana Voices/ David Robertson – BIS

Very interesting works with an element of message.

Published on November 8, 2013

BRETT DEAN: The Lost Art of Letter Writing; Testament for Twelve Violas; Vexations and Devotions – Frank Peter Zimmermann, violin/Sydney Sym./Jonathan Nott/BBC Sym. viola section/ Martyn Brabbins/ BBC Sym. and Chorus/Gondwana Voices/ David Robertson – BIS

BRETT DEAN: The Lost Art of Letter Writing; Testament for Twelve Violas; Vexations and Devotions – Frank Peter Zimmermann, violin/Sydney Sym./Jonathan Nott/BBC Sym. viola section/Martyn Brabbins/ BBC Sym. and Chorus/Gondwana Voices/ David Robertson – BIS multichannel SACD DSD 2016 (10/29/13) [Distr. by Naxos], 86:22 ***1/2:

I really was not all that familiar with Australian composer, violist and conductor Brett Dean until a recent performance of his Last Days of Socrates in Los Angeles. His music seems consistently bracing and cerebral but also very picturesque and quite “approachable” in the realm of contemporary music. Many of his pieces combine his own keen sense of the possibilities of virtuoso string writing (Dean, himself, being a very fine violist who premiered his own Viola Concerto in 2005) with political or social commentary of various sorts.

The Lost Art of Letter Writing – really a concerto for violin and orchestra – is a perfect example of this. For Dean, the notion expressed in the title is both a commentary on contemporary short, unemotional, frequently misleading electronic communication but also an opportunity to use the vast emotional possibilities of the violin to convey emotion – much as might be found in the hand-written letter. Each of the four movements is subtitled from a time and place where a letter has spurred both emotional response as well as creative impulse. For example, the frenetic and somewhat agitated concluding movement, Jerilderie, 1879, is taken from a page out of Australian history; in this case, a letter by the famous outlaw Ned Kelly that challenges the government to stop him from his activities, in Kelly’s mind to renew social justice. This very exciting work really leaves an impression. Certainly the nature of the movements and their derivations is compelling, but on all accounts, this is an excellent new violin concerto by any name.

Testament for twelve violas is quite a bit different and yet has one thing in common with The Lost Art. Testament is a work written for Dean’s former colleagues from his days in the Berlin Philharmonic viola section and is inspired by the written word; in this case, Beethoven’s famous “Heiligenstadt Testament”.  Dean uses some contemporary string techniques to imitate Beethoven’s furious scribbling and crossing out but also some eery bowings without rosin to simulate sounds distorted by a growing deafness. Additionally, the bits and fragments of Beethoven’s “Rasumovsky” Quartet carry a fleeting significance as well.  Certainly this is a very unusual work in its scoring but a very effective one.

In the social commentary category of Dean’s music, it seems that Vexations and Devotions is an excellent example.  This is a big dramatic work for mixed chorus, children’s choir, orchestra and electronics.  Dean refers to the work as a “sociological cantata” which has as its philosophical basis the dehumanization of society through technology, the media and a general loss of human to human empathy. This is deep, troubling stuff to be sure, as are some of the texts (including actual computer generated telephone messages; which most of us find annoying at best and uncaring at worst). The great beauty of this work, and I think Dean’s music as a whole, is that no matter the topic or the seriousness of the tone, his music is attention-getting, compelling and frequently beautiful.

As I mentioned, I discovered Brett Dean’s music a bit accidentally and liked it. I explored this CD to purposefully learn more and I am very impressed. It seems that his music is unique. It is dramatic, even moody, but ultimately very well-written and very engaging and rewarding to listen to.

—Daniel Coombs




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