‘Violas should be seen and not heard,’ quipped Malcolm Sargent. Classical music lovers know very well that the viola is ripe for ridicule and has inspired countless jokes. In this concert, the viola was enjoyably celebrated as a worthy solo as well as accompanying instrument. Brett Dean’s Notturno Quieto, an Australian première, begins with a viola solo, as does Bartók’s Viola Concerto.
Dean’s composition had its first performance in June 2018 during a concert farewell for Simon Rattle, who had commissioned it (Dean was a violist with the orchestra from 1985 to 1999). As a composer, he spotlights the viola section, which, after a solo viola introduction set against an agitated shimmer, expands into a restlessly searching episode until it is eclipsed by a woodwind chorale. Dean’s music artfully plunders each orchestral section’s colours, though the prescribed timbres are non-traditional. For instance, there is a prolonged stretch of eerily muted trumpet strains. Theatrical, the music is replete with intricate rhythms and grows into an explosive and triumphant sonic peak. Retreating gradually and travelling back to the opening’s stillness, the final trembling terrain is heard as a peaceful afterglow.