DEAN The Lost Art of Letter Writing. Vexations and Devotions
Brett Dean’s violin concerto The Lost Art of Letter Writing was composed in 2006, revised the following year and won the Grawemeyer Award in 2009. It is a paean to handwritten communication (the four movements relate to historical notes from Brahms to Clara Schumann, Van Gogh to Anthon van Rappard, Hugo Wolf to his brother-in-law and finally one by Ned Kelly), and Dean evokes that art through mostly wistful musical languages which he feels appropriate to each: Brahmsian hints in the first span, tonally ambivalent, starlit textures for Van Gogh, and so forth. Frank Peter Zimmermann has the measure of the solo part and receives fine support from the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in a wondrous surround-sound recording.
Dean was a viola player in the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra for 14 years. Viola players tend to be the butt of jokes within the orchestra, usually told by trombonists. Dean uses humour in the central section of his ‘sociological cantata’ (as he describes it) Vexations and Devotions (2005) with a deadpan evocation of a telephone call-centre message. It is perhaps overdone, sitting slightly awkwardly with the rest of the work, which is thoughtful and rather moving, superbly rendered here by Gondwana Voices with BBC forces directed by David Robertson. Most memorable of all to my ears, though, is Testament, a 2002 essay for his 12 Berlin viola-playing colleagues inspired by Beethoven’s Heiligenstadt Testament. It is played here by the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s viola section led by Norbert Blume, with Dean himself in the ranks. Superb sound from BIS completes a fascinating disc.