Skilful Use of Orchestral Textures in Brett Dean’s Viola Concerto

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Borodin, Dean, Tchaikovsky: Brett Dean (viola), Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Peter Oundjian (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 09.10.2015 (SRT)

Borodin: Prince Igor Overture

Dean: Viola Concerto

Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 5

Tchaikovksy’s Fifth Symphony is probably most famous for its horn solo, and tonight we got as good a horn solo as I’ve ever heard; technically flawless, but also ringing with confidence and cantabile beauty.  It was pretty special.  The strings were on their top game, too, glowering darkly in the introductions to the first and second movements, but with gleaming brightness on top when called for, most effectively in the climaxes of the slow movement.  Peter Oundjian, conducting from memory, kept the momentum going effectively, with an especially effective touch in the Waltz, and the ebb and flow of the finale was well handled, even if it felt a little superficial at times: there were depths there that had yet to be plumbed.

Borodin’s Prince Igor Overture was similarly well shaped – also with a knockout horn solo – but the strings there were much too well behaved!

It’s pretty rare to have a composer performing his own work, but Brett Dean’s Viola Concerto gives you that pretty unique listening experience.  Dean wrote the concerto for himself, so it surprised me that he played it from the score.  Still, it’s a repeatedly striking piece, especially in the way it uses the viola’s topmost register much more than the chocolaty depths with which we tend to associate it.  That often gives the solo line a particularly strident quality.

But what I most liked was Dean’s use of the orchestral textures, be it the expressive grace of the first and last movements, often featuring bowed percussion or remarkably delicate writing for orchestral soloists, or the sometimes frenzied pace of the central Pursuit movement, which could have been lifted from a film score.  The viola’s spectral duet with the xylophone, just before the end, will stick with me for a long time.

Simon Thompson

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