Brett Dean is not shy about revealing what his music is ‘about’. Whether inspired by certain individuals (as in Epitaphs), or by an ecological or human disaster (as in his String Quartet No. 1, on the now all too topical plight of refugees), Dean’s works are usually – perhaps invariably – driven by extra-musical narratives. Rather than tease out any innate structural puzzles or tensions, his music typically falls into short little dramatic narratives – no movement on this disc lasts as long as eight minutes, many of them rather less than five. The most obviously successful work here is Quartet No. 2, ‘And once I played Ophelia’, effectively a dramatic scena. Its soprano soloist is no mere extra voice (as in Schoenberg’s Second Quartet) but the leading protagonist. Allison Bell’s genuinely affecting performance is backed by the Doric Quartet’s expressionist scampering and sustained harmonies, the strings occasionally coming to the fore in the manner of a Schumann-style song postlude.
Unusually the liner note deserves a mention ahead of the music: the fine pianist Jeremy Denk, half of this regular duo, manages to encapsulate the elusiveness of French romantic music with such insight in a few sharp sentences, his words almost shape the way we listen to this superbly played disc. Saint-Saëns' wistful and emotional Sonata No 1 and Ravel's bluesy, ironic sonata have a whipped, airy quality. Joshua Bell plays with fire and finesse, with Denk a powerful ally. Franck's dark-light violin sonata, mysterious, ardent and far more than the sum of its parts when played as majestically as here, forms the centrepiece of this seriously beguiling disc.
"Little Girl" is a rock & roll classic. With its sneering vocals, vague threats, crude chords and rhythms, it's a menacing, swagger masterpiece of garage rock. It's also the only good thing the Syndicate of Sound ever recorded. Little Girl – The History of the Syndicate of Sound compiles nearly everything the group recorded, yet none of it comes close to matching the power of their hit single; it's a mess of weak originals and limp covers. The patience of even the most dedicated garage rock fan will be tested by the disc.