Brett Dean: Etüdenfest, Shadow Music, Short Stories. Beethoven (arr. Dean) String Quartet op. 59/1: Adagio. Dean: Testament
Swedish Chamber Orchestra
Brett Dean, conductor
BIS SACD 2194
Brett Dean has a rare gift, an ability to make the avant-garde accessible, and without any compromises. He now holds a position similar to Luciano Berio in the previous generation, as the composer of serious Modernist music that always keeps its face to the audience. Both composers often employ a Postmodern element in their music to achieve this, writing works with clear links to the much-loved music of earlier eras. But both also pursue more abstract paths, though even then giving helpful clues—evocative titles, clear thematic or textural ideas—to allow listeners to keep up. The five works presented here come from relatively early in Dean’s career and present a compositional voice gradually approaching full maturity. All of the textural, timbral, and even structural ideas that make his more recent works so successful are already securely in place, but what’s often missing is a sense of substance, of having an important message to express.
Or perhaps that is the wrong way to approach this music. The opening work, Etüdenfest (2000), was inspired by the sounds emanating from conservatory practice rooms. It is filled with extended string techniques, playfully layered and juxtaposed. There is a quiet and often haunting atmosphere to the work, but Dean seems determined to ground the music in its own prosaic origins: Just when you feel something emotionally profound is about to happen, he introduces an obbligato piano, incessantly practicing his arpeggios. And then the work ends. A playful étude and nothing more.
But the brittle, half-lit atmosphere of Etüdenfest continues throughout the program. In Shadow Music Dean orientates the entire work around the idea of shadows, with dark sounds and eerie percussive effects looming out of indistinct background textures. Winds and percussion are added to the ensemble, following the strings and piano of Etüdenfest, but this is still predominantly string music, and while Dean writes proficiently for every orchestral section, it is always the strings that get the majority of the interesting extended techniques.
Short Stories (2005) is, as its title suggests, more pictorial and more narrative. The five “interludes” each have a different character, the quieter ones following the shadowy mood of the previous two works. A narrative quality comes through more strongly in the faster music, where we hear long, weaving violin lines drawing the ear onwards through the ever-beguiling textures. No actual stories are told (or at least acknowledged by the composer), apart from in the penultimate movement, “Komarov’s Last Words,” a memorial to cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov, the first casualty of space flight.
A greater emotional depth is evident in Testament (2002, rev. 2008), a work inspired by Beethoven’s “Heiligenstadt Testimony.” Dean prefaces the work with a chamber orchestra arrangement (flute, clarinet, and string orchestra) of the Adagio from Beethoven’s String Quartet op. 59/1. The arrangement itself is very elegant, and Dean’s penchant for held string pedals informs his settings of the accompanying textures. Testament follows the mood of the Beethoven movement, but the actual allusions to Beethoven’s work within Dean’s are subtle, brief quotations from the Adagio, and also, apparently, allusions to the upbeat character of the finale of the quartet. The result, in Dean’s words, is an ambivalence “somewhere between languor and resolve.”
The BIS label has done great service to Brett Dean’s music, and this is just the most recent in a long line of excellent SACD recordings. Dean himself conducts here, and the focus on textures and balances that characterize his composition transfer well to his work at the podium. The pace at which he unfolds these works always feels patient, searching for, and achieving, excellent clarity in each of the textural ideas he presents. Orchestral playing is excellent throughout: It always seems to be with Brett Dean’s music, a virtue, no doubt of his idiomatic writing. Recorded sound is very fine, too, clear SACD audio, not the kind that shows off its high fidelity credentials, but instead articulates the details without any harshness or edge and gives subtle but valuable weight to the bass.
None of these works is labeled as a first recording. With Etüdenfest, Shadow Music, and Testament, BIS is here catching up with ABC, who recorded the three works with the Tasmanian Symphony (ABC 4763219, released 2014). The latter work is an orchestral arrangement of a piece by the same name for 12 violas, written in 2002, and the original is available on BIS 2016, as a filler for the Violin Concerto “The Lost Art of Letter Writing,” to date perhaps Dean’s most accomplished work. No other recording of Short Stories appears to be available at present, but, given the huge interest in the composer’s work from a range of record labels, it is probably only a matter of time before the next appears. No need to wait though—these composer-led versions are unlikely to be surpassed any time soon.
This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 40:3.
This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 40:3.