Brett Dean’s Hidden Agendas String Quartet
by Jennifer Bryce
Book-ended by a refreshing Haydn string quartet (opus 33 no 4) and a dramatic, 21st century interpretation of Beethoven’s late quartet in C-sharp minor (opus 131), the brilliant Doric Quartet performed last night a new work by Brett Dean for Musica Viva.
The Doric Quartet, from England
Brett Dean is an outstanding, internationally recognised Australian composer. I have written before about the performance of his opera Hamlet: https://wordpress.com/post/jenniferbryce.net/1010 .
Before the performance, Brett Dean came on stage and told us that he composed this piece in London just recently, during the present ‘democratic challenges’ posed by the Brexit situation in Britain. The piece was commissioned through Musica Viva for the tenth anniverary of the Melbourne Recital Centre.
Brett Dean at work
It is absolutely a piece of the moment. I was on the edge of my seat most of the time. The very idea of ‘Hidden Agendas’ evokes ‘aspects of the strangely fascinating and invariably unsettling political climate of extreme personalities, Twitter outrage, groupthink and other challenges to the democratic process in which we seem to find ourselves as we enter the 2020s’ [Limelight Magazine].
There are five movements. The first movement, entitled ‘Hubris’ conveys a false sense of confidence, an unease, that pervades the whole work. The music gives an expectation of change — but it doesn’t happen (reflecting, for me, very much Britain’s dealing with the European Community). By the second and third movements, ‘Response’ and ‘Retreat’, the musical lines become more fragmentary. After the third movement, before the fourth, titled ‘Self Censorship’, the players clean the resin off their strings and take up resin-free bows — resin helps the bow to grip the strings, so without it the sound is more tentative: whisperings and flutterings. Gradually, led by the ‘cello, the players start to play with resin again and embark on the fifth movement: ‘On-message’. Is it a kind of reconciliation? There is a sense of confidence, but it came across to me as a false confidence.
This work depicts our times: the bombardment of messages, fakeness, uncertainty. The work ends violently with finely wrought energetic aggression. I am sure that the work requires performers of the calibre of the Doric Quartet, who achieved magical contrasts in tone and dynamics with mind-blowing technical facility.