Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Cologne Philharmonie

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Things got off to a bad start. Martyn Brabbins, who was to have made his debut with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Cologne, had to cancel at the 11th hour. And that with a strange programme of 20th- and 21st-century music by Anglophone composers. Who could step in to conduct Britten, Adès, Ives, Bernstein and the world premiere of Brett Dean’s violin concerto?

Stefan Asbury could, as it transpired. And how. Except for the concerto, which the composer himself conducted. The result was a mood of warm and willing support from this crack orchestra, which turned a bad start into a good one, from the first bar of Britten’s darkly angry Sinfonia da requiem. And the mood held through to the last of Bernstein’s effusive Candide overture.

Dean is not the sort of composer whose works’ first performances become their last. The Lost Art of Letter-Writing, written with Frank Peter Zimmermann in mind, was performed the day after its Cologne birth in Amsterdam, and will be further aired with other orchestras during the next few weeks in Munich, Berlin and Stockholm.

This half-hour concerto is a narrative. Its soloist tells the story of a dying form of communication, one letter per movement. Hamburg, 1854 reflects on Brahms’ illicit passion for Clara Schumann, laced with quotes from his Fourth Symphony. The Hague, 1882 looks at van Gogh’s praise of the eternal beauty of nature, with wide-spaced harmonies and a prayer-like sincerity. Vienna, 1886 casts a net of Austrian refinement over Hugo Wolf’s expressions of wretchedness. Then Jerilderie, 1879 moves the action abruptly to the garish sunlight of Australian bushranger Ned Kelly’s notorious manifesto, with robust, chattering staccato and much flourish.

Dean’s string-writing is ferociously virtuosic, yet eminently playable. Zimmermann attacks his part with relish, and the poise to breathe life into the lyrical passages. The Lost Art of Letter-Writing is all meaty honesty and no pretension, art without artifice.
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