Brett Dean: The Lost Art of Letter Writing (SACD)

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Frank Peter Zimmermann, Sydney Symphony, BBC Symphony

Frank Peter Zimmermann (violin)

BBC Symphony Orchestra, Sydney Symphony, Gondwana Voices & BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, Jonathan Nott, David Robertson & Martyn Brabbins

More than most composers currently active, Brett Dean uses music to tackle political and social themes of our times.

A common factor in the works on this recording is the sometimes problematic aspects of human communication and the erosion and misuse of language.

In his violin concerto The Lost Art of Letter Writing, which was awarded the renowned Grawemeyer Award in 2009, Dean strikes a blow for written correspondence, demonstrating how, even today, the art of letter writing, the conveyance of wholly individual mood pictures, is possible. Each of the four movements is prefaced by a quotation from an historical letter, from Brahms to Clara Schumann, from van Gogh to a painter colleague, from Hugo Wolf to his brother-in-law and, finally, from Dean’s compatriot, the outlaw Ned Kelly addressing the Australian government. With a duration of more than 30 minutes the work is a tour-de-force written for Frank Peter Zimmermann, who also performs it here with the eminent support of Sydney Symphony conducted by Jonathan Nott.

In the work that follows it, Brett Dean – also a distinguished viola player – makes a guest appearance as part of the viola section of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Testament is also is also inspired by the written word: Beethoven’s famous Heiligenstadt Testament, which he wrote while still in shock following the diagnosis of incurable hearing loss. In the piece, Dean traces the fluctuating emotions in Beethoven’s text, and succeeds in musically interpreting it as a turning point, a move from the deepest despair into one of Beethoven’s most important creative periods.

With an exceptional playing time of 86 minutes (!), the disc closes with another large-scale work: Vexations and Devotions. Described by the composer as a ‘sociological cantata’, the three-movement work deals with the dehumanization of society, closely bound up with the loss of language and an increasing sense of alienation.

The present recording was made during a public performance of the piece in the framework of the BBC Proms in 2007, with David Robertson conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus and the Australian children’s choir Gondwana Voices.

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Composer's Notes    

Not only is letter writing becoming a lost art, but one could argue that handwriting itself is an endangered skill. Aspects of my daughters’ education, in particular its heavy reliance on electronic stimuli, have reinforced my view that we are genuinely losing touch with the tactile element of written communication. A recent article in an Australian newspaper points out that the proportion of personal letters amongst the total number of sent articles handled by the national postal authority, Australia Post, has declined from 50% in 1960 to 13% nowadays. Sure, we stay in touch arguably more than ever, via telephone, email and messaging, but that too has undoubtedly changed the nature of communicating.

These were then the initiating thoughts behind my Violin Concerto, ‘The Lost Art of Letter Writing’, co-commissioned by the Cologne Philharmonie and the Stockholm Philharmonic for the esteemed soloist Frank Peter Zimmermann, to whom the work is dedicated with my great admiration. Each movement is prefaced by an excerpt from a 19th Century letter of one kind or another, ranging from private love-letter to public manifesto. Each title refers to the place and year the letter was written. The violin plays the alternate roles of both an author and a recipient of letters, but perhaps more importantly, the solo part conjures something of the mood of each of the different letters.

The first movement “Hamburg, 1854” refers to one of classical music’s great secret romances, that between Johannes Brahms and Clara Schumann. The music itself relates to aspects of Brahms’s own works: the unsettled, 32nd note oscillation in the opening bars, for example, comes from a moment in the slow movement of his Fourth Symphony – an orchestral texture that has always particularly intrigued me. This forms an undulating background upon which the violinist enters the scene as letter writing protagonist, spinning an impassioned and involved missive to an unrequited love. Part of Brahms’ early “Variations on a Theme of Schumann” also weaves its way into the movement.

The second movement, “The Hague, 1882”, is a broad, prayer-like slow movement, and takes its cue from a line from a letter of Vincent van Gogh, reflecting upon the eternal beauty of nature as being a constant in his otherwise troubled and notoriously unstable life.

The third movement, “Vienna, 1886”, is a brief intermezzo, a fleshing out of a movement from my recent song cycle entitled Wolf-Lieder. It is a setting of an excerpt from one of Hugo Wolf’s letters to a close personal friend, again a frank outpouring from a life of affliction.

The final movement finds its inspiration in the famous “Jerilderie Letter” of the Australian bushranger, Ned Kelly. Kelly wrote this letter in the small rural town of Jerilderie in 1879 as a public manifesto in order to articulate his pleas of innocence and desire for justice for both his family and other poor Irish settlers in the North-East of Victoria in the days of colonial Australia. Here the music takes on the character of a desperate ‘moto perpetuo’, hurtling through passages of considerable virtuosity, but always reflecting the sense of impending catastrophe inherent in Kelly’s famous document.

© Brett Dean 2006 

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Dean, B:

The Lost Art of Letter Writing

Frank Peter Zimmermann (violin)

Sydney Symphony, Jonathan Nott


for 12 violas

BBC Symphony Orchestra (viola section), Martyn Brabbins

Vexations and Devotions

Gondwana Voices & BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, David Robertson

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BBC Music Magazine

February 2014


“Dean creates a Berg-like soundscape in which fragments of that Symphony [Brahms 4] fleetingly or sometimes not so fleetingly swim into focus...A similarly effective tension between classic fragments and Dean's music features in Testament...weaves wailing and whistling lines from a 12-viola ensemble.”

Gramophone Magazine

January 2014

“Dean evokes that art [of letter-writing] through mostly wistful musical languages which he feels appropriate to each...Zimmermann has the measure of the solo part and receives fine support from the Sydney Symphony Orchestra...Superb sound from BIS completes a fascinating disc.”

MusicWeb International

14th February 2014

“This is a very fine and generous addition to Brett Dean's expanding discography.”

The Guardian

7th November 2013


“Like the best works with literary subtexts, The Lost Art of Letter Writing can also be appreciated on its own purely abstract musical terms, and as a wonderfully idiomatic concerto inhabiting a post-Bergian musical world, it's as important an achievement as Dean's earlier Viola Concerto and one of the most significant recent additions to the violin-concerto repertoire.”

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