Brett Dean Premiere

Kleine Dreigroschenmusik
Viola Concerto [World premiere]
Accompaniment to a Film Scene, Op.34
Symphonic Dances, Op.45

Brett Dean (viola)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Rumon Gamba

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 15 April, 2005
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Not so many composers have written viola concertos, and few have also performed their works. But Brett Dean, principal violist with the Berlin Philharmonic during Abbado’s tenure and now established as a composer in his own right, has the credentials to do both – as this premiere amply confirmed.

To compose a viola concerto means demonstrating the instruments full expressive potential, while respecting its essentially inward, musing character. Dean succeeds on both counts, not least through the exact gauging the work’s overall proportions. Thus ‘Fragment’ sets the scene both in terms of the ruminative yet plangent solo writing and fastidious orchestration – then ‘Pursuit’ is a full-length scherzo in which the toccata-like passage-work and agile interplay between soloist and orchestra of the outer sections is complemented by the ominous calm of the central cadenza. The final movement, ‘Veiled and Mysterious’, is as long as the preceding two combined – building from an elegiac cantilena to a climax featuring most of the work’s motifs, before a lengthy aftermath involving obbligato oboe and cor anglais returns the music to the disquieting depths from which it emerged.

That the concerto received a committed performance goes without saying – but as an orchestral musician of many year’s experience, Dean was able to integrate the solo part into the texture with an appreciation of the need for balance that many soloists could not begin to emulate. Rumon Gamba directed with a discipline yet also flair to make this an auspicious premiere on all fronts. The viola concerto repertoire is not so extensive that a work of this quality should not soon become part of it.

The remainder of the programme was skilfully devised to bring out connections between three widely contrasted works from the inter-war period. Weill’s Kleine Dreigroschenmusik (1929) ideally needs a smaller venue for the pungent brass and wind writing to have effect, but this bracing overview of “The Threepenny Opera” still made its mark – Gamba as alive to the rhythmic kick of the ‘hit’ numbers, and the winsome lyricism of ‘Polly’s Song’, as to the formal poise which galvanises the disparate sections of the ‘Finale’ with Baroque-like conclusiveness. Hard to believe barely a year separates this music from Schoenberg’s Accompaniment to a Film Scene (1930), a tone poem which encapsulates a whole scenario in its febrile nine-minute span. If Gamba seemed a touch listless in ‘Threatening Danger’, he brought a powerful momentum to ‘Fear’ and shaped ‘Catastrophe’ with a lucidity that confirmed it as the aftermath of an ‘incident’ which, as with the music of Schoenberg’s Expressionist heyday from two decades earlier, is all the more unnerving for being so thoughtfully and understatedly rendered.

In a very different way, Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances (1940) throws up its own share of musical and expressive ambiguity. Not all such issues were addressed in this performance, but Gamba succeeded where many fail in holding the outer movements together so that their relative extremes of energy and elegy were each subsumed into an overall span of starkly accumulating intensity. Some laudably unexaggerated alto-saxophone playing in the opening Non allegro (strange designation!) was complemented by piquant wind contributions in the central waltz – more than ever a successor to those by Mahler and Ravel – and the uninhibited ‘fight to the death’ with which the composer’s last work is pointedly brought to its close. Not a great performance, in short, but an involved and involving one.

Indeed, having given us an excellent overview of early Maxwell Davies with the BBCSO last season and with his recent Per Nørgård premiere still fresh in the memory, it is clear – having made his reputation with film music recordings for Chandos – that Gamba is becoming an orchestral conductor of distinction. All the more pity, then, that so few were present in the hall to witness his efforts on this occasion.

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