United Kingdom Edinburgh International Festival 2022  – Richard Strauss, Dean, Brahms: Hebrides Ensemble / Brett Dean (conductor & viola). Queen’s Hall, 20.8.2022. (SRT)
R. Strauss (arr. Brett Dean) – Till Eulenspiegels Lustige Streiche
Dean – Recollections
Brahms – String Sextet No.1
There is a big Australia focus at the Edinburgh International Festival this weekend – it is part of the official UK/Australia Season 2021-22 – and so it is natural that the man at the forefront in the classical music side of things should be Brett Dean. The composer and violist is no stranger to the festival (the EIF staged his first opera, Bliss, in 2010) and he appeared both as a player and director on this morning’s podium.
First, as director, he conducted his own music. Recollections is a work about memory, written for a small ensemble of soloists, thus making it perfect for the collective of the Hebrides Ensemble. It is a work about memory and the tricks it plays on us, so its major focus is colour and those often-frightening tricks. Dean’s use of instrumental textures is dashed clever, with moves like the double bass player striking his string with a beater, the pianist doing the same with the open strings, or bowed marimba notes to create an eerie effect. It is also short, so it makes its impact in a concentrated nugget of time.
Unsurprisingly, given the subject material, its primary emotional impact is in the realm of the uncanny, with an edgy, frightened streak in the imaginatively titled second movement ‘Don’t Wake Mother’. In the unspecified ‘Incident’ of the fifth movement there is a massive impact from the combination of terrified col legno strings, rolling gong and a bubbling clarinet, and the final movement combines sliding along the strings with bowed marimba against a quotation from a piece by Clara Schumann that feels like a forgotten memory, the ending left hanging in the air like an unanswered question.
Dean then took the second viola seat for a performance of Brahms’s First Sextet. What does it say about the composer’s musical personality that so much of what he wrote, even youthful pieces like this one, sounds autumnal? There was gorgeous warmth in the outer movements of this performance, with a sinewy sense of the music’s inner workings. There was a lot of weight in the middle movements, though, perhaps too much. The second movement’s variations rarely moved out of a mood of neo-Baroque severity, while the galumphing Scherzo was only slightly lightened by the arrival of its Trio section.
There was lightness aplenty in Dean’s arrangement of Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel, however, delightfully so when played like this. Scored for a nonet of single strings plus solo horn, bassoon, flute and clarinet, Dean’s scoring retains much of the colour and feel of the original. There was less weight, of course, and no percussion, but the light shone right through the middle of the texture, and throughout it carried a tremendous sense of fun.
The Edinburgh International Festival runs until Sunday 28th August at a variety of venues across the city. Click here for details.