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LEBRECHT LISTENS | Brave Australian Brett Dean Juxtaposes His A Winter’s Journey With The Beethoven Concerto That Inspired It

By Norman Lebrecht on July 5, 2024

Pianist Jonathan Biss (Photo: Benjamin Ealovega)
Pianist Jonathan Biss (Photo: Benjamin Ealovega)

Beethoven: Emperor Concerto; Brett Dean: A Winter’s Journey (Beethoven/5, Vol. 1 (Live))(Orchid)


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Composers have learned not to mess with Beethoven. Fewer variations have been written on themes by Beethoven than on any other master’s work. Reformers, like Mahler, who sought to update his instrumentation came away with a bloody nose. A recent computerised ‘completion’ of an alleged tenth symphony by Beethoven was a seriously bad AI joke.

It must have taken guts on the part of the Australian Brett Dean to fashion a new piano concerto from fragments of the Emperor Concerto, the more so when the Emperor is played before it in the same programme. Dean, a former Berlin Philharmonic violist, is an adept maker of orchestral recipes that sound at once fresh and familiar. He knows exactly what he’s doing. If ‘A Winter’s Journey’ drifts into a greyish stretch, he drops in a nifty riff from the Emperor and all’s well with the audience.

Dean’s 27-minute work in three movements is furnished with more notes than Beethoven needed, but pianos have improved since his time and so have pianists. Jonathan Biss plays A Winter’s Journey with jaw-dropping dexterity and evident relish. The Swedish Radio Symphony just about keep within safe noise limits. David Afkham conducts.

I have listened to the Dean work three times and remain neutral, unable to predict its future. The Swedish performance of the Emperor Concerto is decidedly underwhelming.

To read more from Norman Lebrecht, subscribe to Slippedisc.com.


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