Winter Songs [UK premiere]
Brett Dean (viola)
Daniel Norman (tenor)
Members of the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Martyn Brabbins
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 5 May, 2002
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London
While this 10th anniversary season of the Philharmonia Orchestra’s Music for Today has been mainly retrospective in nature, the music of Brett Dean has not been heard in the series before and, on the basis of the two works featured, its inclusion was timely.
Now in his forty-first year, Australia-born Dean is best known as a viola player and was a member of the Berlin Philharmonic for fifteen years. His recordings include Benjamin Frankel’s evocative concerto, with the Queensland Symphony and Werner Andreas Albert (CPO 999 422-2). Now a full-time composer, Dean’s music has a visceral side allied to real technical command and an urgent desire to communicate.
Unsurprising in the case of Intimate Decisions (1996), in which Dean puts the solo viola through its paces in music whose cumulative arch of intensity grows audibly from the well-defined group of intervals heard in the austere opening bars. For all its evident virtuosity, the emotional impact is never in doubt, and the composer himself steered the piece through in a performance of undoubted eloquence.
Winter Songs (1994-2000) is very different: a setting of five poems by e. e. cummings (he of the lower-case!) for tenor and wind quintet. The typographical and syntactic freedom of many of cummings’s poems encourages a spontaneous response, and Dean certainly captured the penetrating observations of “Poem 16” and “Poem 17” – whose emotional trajectory seemed to mirror the lengthy instrumental prelude with its Varèsian dynamism and subtlety of sonority. “Poem 36” formed the centrepiece of the song-cycle, its ecological concerns inspiring a response of agitated uncertainty. The final two settings – of “Poem 52” and “Poem 42” respectively – open onto a much calmer expression, the music drawing into itself as the verses allow for a degree of tenderness.
Winter Songs was sung with commitment by Daniel Norman with the Philharmonia’s wind players giving their all under the expert direction of Martyn Brabbins. Brett Dean has clearly evolved into a composer of substance, and his music will hopefully be featuring more regularly in UK programmes from now on.
- The next Music of Today features Poul Ruders on Tuesday, 4 June, in the Royal Festival Hall at 6 o’clock – free admission, no ticket required
- Recordings of Brett Dean’s music: One of a Kind (Channel Classics CCS 12898); Night’s Journey – BIS-CD-884
- For an overview of the 10th Anniversary series click here