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Himself a violist with the Berlin Philharmonic for 15 years, Brett Dean has written fluently for strings in many configurations. On his first appearance with the Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group, in 2000, he played his solo viola piece Intimate Decisions (1996) and the New Music Group gave the West Coast premiere of his Gesualdo-inspired Carlo: Music for Strings, Sampler, and Tape (1997), under the direction of Markus Stenz, one of the many champions of Dean's music.
Dean has also worked directly with his Berlin colleagues in pieces such as Twelve Angry Men (1996, for the twelve cellos of the Berlin Philharmonic) and Testament (2002, for the twelve Berlin violas). Similarly, Voices of Angels was premiered by pianist Imogen Cooper with Dean and three companions from the Berlin Philharmonic in 1996 in the Chamber Music Hall of the Philharmonie. Scored for the same ensemble as Schubert's "Trout" Quintet, this 26-minute work "occupies an emotional landscape that is rich in character, suggestive of the creatures the composer is celebrating, packed with quicksilver touches, and also vehement and driving segments," according to Clive O'Connell's review in 2002.
The fastidiously detailed score reveals a player's command of remarkably varied articulation and special techniques. The first movement alternates reflection and agitation; the second is basically a full-tilt running ramble, until it floats off into dreamy recollection of the first movement. Dean prefaced the score with these lines from Rilke's first Duino Elegy:
Angels (it's said) are often unable to tell whether they move
amongst the living or the dead. An eternal current
hurtles all ages through both realms for ever,
and drowns out their voices in both.