Brett Dean

Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Guest Reviewer, Peter Reed

The UK has had to wait nearly four years for its premiere of Brett Dean’s Cello Concerto, first heard in Sydney in August 2018, followed by performances in Europe and the USA, all of them played by Alban Gerhardt. The Cello Concerto lasts about thirty minutes and is in five sections – an initially diffident introduction that unfolds into a serene slow section, followed by two fast sections and a time-stands-still coda that revisits and unpicks the opening.

Dean describes the work as “completely abstract”, although on first hearing various connections became clear, along the lines of cello proposes and orchestra disposes. The process was signalled right from the start, given increasingly more grit by the orchestra reflecting and distorting the soloist’s material into a complex and dense exchange of idea and variation, making the soloist’s relationship with the orchestra steadily more ambiguous. The thought lingers that if Dean had provided a programme, it would have stood by the Concerto’s intense emotionalism and a just-about figurative layout of linked events. There was almost an element of those recent, graphic ‘stagings’ of Berlioz’s Harold in Italy, in which the viola soloist went walkabout through the orchestra, absorbing memory, identity and experience on the way. The ending worked particularly well, a quizzical, mysterious vanishing act for the sadder but wiser cellist, which recalled the end of the 1957 movie The Incredible Shrinking Man in which matter merged into the cosmos, an unexpectedly tear-jerking gesture in both media, more atomisation than death, although chiming bells perhaps suggested something more specific.

The sixty-one-year-old Dean’s experience as a viola-player in the Berlin Philharmonic (1985-99, during which time he started composing seriously) has given his scoring immense size and personality, which were much in evidence from the LPO, here with a lot of percussion, a piano, and the synthetic sheen of a Hammond organ. Alban Gerhardt was playing the huge cello role from memory, and both he and his instrument rose to Dean’s complex demands, heroically guided by Edward Gardner’s overview of this ambitious work.

The LPO and its Principal Conductor opened the concert with a spectacularly red-blooded outing for Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem (1940), instantly bringing the catastrophe of war centre-stage. In the ‘Lacrymosa’, the strings dug deep into the music’s vocal aspirations with rare urgency; the ‘Dies irae’ was like Mahler and Shostakovich telling the blackest jokes while locked in mortal combat, and terrifyingly prescient of the bleaker moments of War Requiem, while the final section slowly but surely asserted radiance and hope.

In another wartime work, Vaughan Williams’s Symphony No.5, Gardner and the LPO created the sort of rapt spell you never want to end. It was beautifully played, and Gardner was faultless in delivering the composer’s clear-eyed appraisal of the wonder and loss of the past and in releasing his visionary optimism for the future. The cor anglais solo in the ‘Romanza’ was tinged with the darkness Wagner and Sibelius loved, and Gardner allowed the music’s retreats and advances to build with unforced serenity.

London Philharmonic Orchestra at Royal Festival Hall – Vladimir Jurowski conducts Enescu’s Second Symphony – Julia Fischer plays Elgar’s Violin Concerto [BBC Radio 3 recording].