Australian composer Brett Dean’s long professional life as a violist (he served 14 years in the Berlin Philharmonic) surely explains the highly refined mastery with which he writes for strings, even when employing extended techniques. The first movement of his String Quartet No. 1, Eclipse, begins with slow moving patterns that often use harmonics. Tremolos increasingly enter the landscape and reach a climax before launching into a jagged pizzicato episode. The second movement is vigorous and energetic, with hints of a jig and lots of microtonal interaction before concluding quietly. The almost panoramic stillness of the first movement permeates the third.
Based on texts by Matthew Jocelyn after Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Dean’s String Quartet No. 2 makes a stronger, more original impression in its first three movements, although again he opts for a slow, freeze-framed ending. The amazingly agile soprano soloist Allison Bell’s madcap quasi scatting, aspirated syllables, and astounding leaps into the vocal stratosphere work hand in glove with Dean’s looser, more uninhibited string writing.
Dean ends the string quintet Epitaphs more or less the same way as in the quartets, but there’s attractive material elsewhere, such as the fourth movement’s Bartókian asymmetry and colorfully varied bowings and articulations, and the first movement’s widely spaced melodic doublings between violin and cello flanking wiry inner-voice movement.
Given the composer’s supervising presence and, in the quintet, his actual participation as second violist, one assumes that the Doric String Quartet’s extremely accomplished and polished world-premiere recorded performances are as authoritative as you’ll get. Yet what ultimately closes the deal is Allison Bell’s phenomenal vocal artistry.