Mojca Erdmann, Topi Lehtipuu, Brett Dean / Tonhalle Orchestra
Dean / Beethoven
Tonhalle Maag, Zurich, 2018-02-28
Brett Dean (*1961) grew up in Brisbane, Australia. At age 8, he started learning the violin, then switched to the viola, studying at the Queensland Conservatorium, graduating in 1982. Between 1985 and 1999, he was violist with the Berlin Philharmonics. In 2000, he decided to start working as freelance musician and composer, moving back to Australia, where from then on, he centered his activities. In the season 2016/2017 he was composer-in-residence with the National Symphony Orchestra in Taiwan, and in this season now, he holds the position of Creative Chair with the Tonhalle Orchestra in Zurich.
As composer, Brett Dean has been very productive. He has written a ballet, two operas (one of these ties into this concert’s program), numerous works for orchestra, music for solo instrument and orchestra (one viola concerto, 2004), a fair amount of chamber music, choral and other vocal works. I still remember well a performance of the orchestral work “Amphitheatre” in a concert in Zurich, on 2017-10-16.
In the first half of this concert in the Tonhalle Maag, Brett Dean conducted two of his compositions. Both were performed in Switzerland for the first time, the second one actually was commissioned by the Tonhalle Orchestra. In the second half, Brett Dean led the orchestra from the first viola desk, for Beethoven’s “Eroica”—with exciting outcome!
Brett Dean: “Testament”, Music for Twelve Violas (2002)
Brett Dean composed “Testament”, a “Music for Twelve Violas”, in 2002, for his former colleagues from the Berlin Philharmonics. The title refers to Beethoven’s famous letter “Heiligenstädter Testament” (Heiligenstadt Testament) which the composer wrote to his brothers in 1802. In this document, for the first time verbalized his progressing deafness, his despair over the illness, even mentioning suicidal thoughts. One can speculate that through writing down this document, Beethoven actually made the resolution to live on, to continue composing, to fight his destiny. The document was only discovered (and later published) after Beethoven’s death, in March 1827
In his composition, Dean is not trying to picture the actual text, the contents of the Heiligenstadt Testament. His music illustrates the situation of the composer losing his hearing. It depicts how Beethoven might have heard music as distorted, dimmed noises, and how his mind reacted to that situation. It showed his inner fighting, his despair, and ultimately, how his creative mind won over the adversities of his situation. In “Testament”, Dean also refers to composition that emerged in the years after the “Heiligenstadt crisis”, the String Quartet No.7 in F major, op.59/1, the first of the three “Razumovsky Quartets” (published 1808).
After the intermission, this concert featured another, famous composition by Beethoven, from the same years after the Heiligenstadt Testament: the Symphony No.3 in E♭ major, op.55, “Eroica”, which in a way also depicts a victory over adversities.
For this performance, the 12 viola players were standing in a 3/4 circle around Brett Dean, who conducted his work with a baton. The 12 music stands not only held the sheet music, but also served as a place to keep a second bow. For the most parts of the single movement (just under 15 minutes), the violists were using a bow without rosin. In the course of the work, gradually the second, “normal” bow came into use.
The bow without rosin can’t really produce a normal sound, but merely as soft, airy, scratching noise, in which the tone / pitch is merely a component. That noise itself can’t be called “awful”, even though it does not satisfy standard sound esthetics. However, it was almost painful to realize how trhe composer may / must have perceived the noises of his environment, and music—particularly his own—through his distorted, fading hearing, where it formed a distant cacophony.
The music initially consisted of scratching, often tone-less noises. It had aspects of chaos, but still rested on a steady, calm meter, which one could feel also without watching Dean’s clear, straight conducting. Even though in the initial part, noise dominated, there were of course still recognizable tones. I did not perceive the music as tonal, however, most of the time, the fragmentary harmonies mostly appeared to center around a recognizable “pole”. Chaos is spreading, growing in waves, making the listener feel Beethoven’s anger, his inner fighting.
Gradually, melody fragments emerge, disappear again. Individual tones reappear, grouping into melody snippets—quotes (rather fragmentary premonitions) from the first of the “Razumovsky Quartets” (F major, op.59). There isn’t much (if any) joy or triumph in this: rather, Dean leaves no doubt about the pain in Beethoven’s mind, this perspective onto an endless and hopeless fight. Yet, in the end, a grim, defiant optimism appears to win (indeed, the years after 1802 were Beethoven’s most productive phase).
Some may see the concept in this music as (too?) striking, maybe even simplistic. To me, it still felt interesting, definitely masterly composed, certainly not trivial. Rather, I found it a gripping and unique composition—especially considering that it reminds us of aspects in Beethoven’s life that are often enough ignored in the face of all the great music that emerged from that genius’ mind!
Brett Dean: “From Melodious Lay (A Hamlet Diffraction)” for Soprano, Tenor, and Orchestra (2016)
In June 2017, the Glyndebourne Festival featured the premiere of Brett Dean’s second opera, “Hamlet”, based on a libretto by the composer and Matthew Jocelyn (*1958). The Libretto is partially based on the drama “Hamlet” by William Shakespeare (1564 – 1616), but also takes inspiration from earlier / other versions of the play.
“From Melodious Lay”(A Hamlet Diffraction) for Soprano, Tenor, and Orchestra, also from 2017, was commissioned by the Tonhalle Orchestra (2017). It is designed as a sort of “preview” (a teaser, if you want) onto the opera. It’s not a direct excerpt, nor a short version of the opera, rather a (rearranged) selection of short, adapted segments with the two protagonists, Hamlet (lyric dramatic tenor), and Ophelia (lyric coloratura soprano). The excerpts do not strictly follow the action, the sequence in the opera. The composition shows no action, but merely presents “diffractions” of mental, psychological situations in the opera. The two singers also adapt some text from other roles in the drama. The 24-minute piece consists of 7 sections:
- I thought thy bride-bed to have deck’d
- O lord, as I was sewing in my closet
- The most beautified Ophelia
- (Orchestral interlude)
- Get thee to a nunnery
- There is a willow
- Farewell, my dove
The title “From Melodious Lay” is a partial quote from segment VII,. where Hamlet’s text reads “Her garments pulled her // From her melodious lay, // To muddy death”.
“From Melodious Lay” requires a big orchestral formation, pretty much filling the podium in the Tonhalle Maag. The orchestra played in its regular setup, sitting in the “romantic” arrangement, featuring the two violin voices on the left, followed by cellos, violas on the right, and double basses on the rear right, with Brett Dean conducting in the center. To Dean’s left, there was the German soprano Mojca Erdmann (*1975, see also Wikipedia), to his right the Finnish tenor Topi Lehtipuu (born 1971 in Brisbane, Australia).
“From Melodious Lay” is consequently atonal, at times noise-laden, typically / mostly with a strong rhythmic foundation. Apart from the eruptive orchestral interlude, the two voices carry the composition from beginning to end.
Mojca Erdmann as Ophelia was entirely convincing. Her dramatic opera voice has astounding volume and projection. The singer never had difficulties in making herself heard above and through the full orchestra, from the impressive middle register up to the highest, dramatic tones. Her voice is full, dense, focused, with expressive plasticity, the vibrato is dramatic, but not excessive in amplitude and pitch modulation.
Topi Lehtipuu was fighting somewhat of a handicap, in that his role doesn’t appear to receive the same “preferential treatment” by the composer as the soprano. Already from the pitch alone, his voice mixes with the orchestra sound, hence is sometimes hard to hear. Sometimes, this is the composer’s intent. One such instance was at the very beginning, where his voice “sneaks in” with a long, growing “O” (from “O Ophelia”). Initially, his singing went unnoticed, then inconspicuously grew, gradually gaining volume. Later, though, in dramatic, emotional moments, the orchestra at times covers his voice completely. It would have required a true Heldentenor (not the proper voice character for this role), or maybe the acoustics of an opera house, to keep his vocal presence throughout the composition.
However, the singer certainly compensated this acoustic disadvantage through his impressive stage presence, through facial mimics and discreet, but clear body language: strong in tragedy, despair, as well as in cynical moments. This already started before one could hear his voice, at the very beginning. From his voice alone (i.e., if we ignore the “obstruction by the orchestra”), Topi Lehtipuu doesn’t need to hide behind the soprano: he has a nice timbre that sometimes reminded me of Ian Bostridge‘s voice. It covers a wide range of tonal qualities, from intense, even dramatic middle and high registers down to recitation and spoken chant, which are frequently used in this composition.
Acoustically, the soprano has the key vocal role here. In these excerpts / snippets, Hamlet (the real protagonist) mostly seemed to act as initiator, as catalyst for the emotional developments in Ophelia’s drama.
I found the music absolutely impressive, gripping. One can easily follow the tragedy that develops in this drama—even without following the details of the text. And: this music made me curious to hear / experience the opera in its entirety!
Sadly, the concert did not sell very well. Was this the cold weather or the “new music”? Brett Dean’s compositions were definitely worth a visit and deserved a bigger audience. There is nothing scary about these works—quite to the contrary!
Beethoven: Symphony No.3 in E♭ major, op.55, “Eroica”
The final part of the concert was devoted to the Symphony No.3 in E♭ major, op.55, “Eroica” by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827). I don’t need to use space to describe the composition here. For details see my earlier post with a comparison of various CD recordings. Let me just list the movements here:
- Allegro con brio, 3/4 (3/4=60)
- Marcia funebre. Adagio assai, 2/4 (1/8=80)
- Scherzo: Allegro vivace — Trio, 3/4 (3/4=116)
- Finale; Allegro molto, 2/4 (1/2=76) — Poco Andante (1/8=108) — Presto (1/4=116)
The people who did not attend this concert were wrong in thinking that Brett Dean’s compositions weren’t worth hearing. As for the second half of the concert: perhaps they snootily thought that Brett Dean could not add much to David Zinman‘s interpretation and recording of Beethoven’s “Eroica” with that orchestra? How wrong they are!
To my amazement, Dean decided to lead the orchestra from the first viola desk (from a slightly elevated position at the front of the podium). At the same time, he also had the entire orchestra (except for cello and double bass players, and the percussionist) perform standing. This may have become the norm with many chamber ensembles. However, with such a fair-sized orchestra it is unusual. It is also challenging, as it makes visual contact and interaction within the orchestra much more difficult. Brett Dean was mostly just playing the viola, with “conducting body language”. Only at beginnings and occasionally later, when the viola part wasn’t that active, he would put the bow into his left hand and indicate the beat, the phrasing with the other hand.
Two factors made this approach successful in this concert: for one, the very active leadership assistance by the first desks, primarily the concertmaster, Klaidi Sahatçi. Then, of course, the active, if not enthusiast participation by all members of the orchestra: a joy to watch and observe!
I. Allegro con brio
Apart from the visual aspects of this performance: from beginning to end, the interpretation was refreshing not only in the vivid tempo chosen, but also in the light, “historically informed” articulation, the lively accents and dynamics, the enthralling joy and enthusiasm throughout the orchestra. I’m sure the performance was based on Jonathan Del Mar‘s new Beethoven edition that already David Zinman relied upon.
The performance showed the orchestra as excellent, autonomous ensemble. And the result was a top-class concert experience. However, this was far from being a simple “Zinman re-make”. Playing while standing means more freedom in body movement, lively interaction. It led to enthralling life within the orchestra and in the music. The performance lacked the cold, polished perfection of a CD recording. Still it exhibited amazing precision and coordination, at least in the first two movements (see below). In the first movement, I could hardly imagine a better concert performance: one single “pull” through the movement—driven, but never pushed, rushed!
II. Marcia funebre. Adagio assai
Quite expectedly, this was a fluent march. It was devoid of the unnecessary, excess pathos and tragedy of traditional performances from the mid-1900’s. The Maggiore part was gripping, touching, hinting at the composer’s big, overwhelming emotions. That formed a strong contrast to the “mental numbness” of the funeral march. In the latter’s second instance (after the first Maggiore segment), in the fugato segment, there was a moment with coordination issues. However, the orchestra fixed those instantly. The impressive, dry pounding of the timpani was heartbreaking—or rather scary? The pp ending indicated destiny’s relentlessness—yet wasn’t quite devoid of hope:
III. Scherzo: Allegro vivace — Trio
One could sense the (slight) drawbacks of a fair-sized orchestra performing standing in the virtuosic Allegro vivace: there were occasional coordination issues in the extended staccato segments. Still, I prefer the liveliness of this concert experience over a perfect recording performance with dead, polished precision.
The three horns (valve horns) in the Trio were refreshingly bright, agile, and full of life.
IV. Finale: Allegro molto — Poco Andante — Presto
One could also experience the “precision vs. liveliness” issue (should I call it “standing vs. sitting”?) in the final movement. Luckily, the orchestra has plenty of “clarity reserves”, so an occasional, slight rhythmic “disagreement” never caused chaos: Brett Dean, Klaidi Sahatçi and the first cellist, Thomas Grossenbacher, reacted instantly and kept such issues from derailing. As stated, playing standing with this size of orchestra and without dedicated conductor comes with risks and trade-offs. It is likely that a slightly smaller orchestra would have further diminished coordination issues and helped the transparency, especially in the fugato segments. But again: this was a concert performance, not a CD recording. And the quality of the sound did not suffer at all.
Despite the occasional coordination issues in the virtuosic second half: I’d rather have these than cold perfection. After all, the “issues” were negligible, considering the drive, the fascination of this performance. It was an absolutely enthralling performance, one which pulled me in from beginning to end, just as much as when I heard this music for the first time, some 50 years ago (and I have listened to this symphony countless times since!). Please: give us more experiences of this kind!!
To conclude, let me state the obvious: it would not have taken the brilliant, fulminant outburst of the final bars to prove how Beethoven did recover from the despair, the repining of the Heiligenstadt Testament, that Brett Dean so poignantly depicted in his piece at the beginning of the concert. As a whole, the concert program formed a compelling, uplifting entity. It was a memorable experience, altogether!
For the same concert, I have also written a (shorter) review in German for Bachtrack.com. This posting is not a translation of the Bachtrack review, the rights of which remain with Bachtrack.com. I created the German review using a subset of the notes taken during this concert. I wanted to enable my non-German speaking readers to read about my concert experience as well. Therefore, I have taken my original notes as a loose basis for this separate posting. I’m including additional material that is not present in the Bachtrack review.