In This Brief Moment review – Darwin, Genesis and whirlygigs in Brett Dean’s mindblowing cantata | Classical music

Brett Dean’s new work is quite a mind-blowing affair: an evolution cantata, viewed from the perspective of this present brief moment in time and spanning 4.5 billion years in 50 minutes. Dean sees it as a love song to planet Earth and the life-force that has conditioned our very existence, but also a lament.

The starting point for Dean and his librettist Matthew Jocelyn was Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, as an alternative to the biblical concept Haydn embraced in his oratorio The Creation, but paying homage to it with quotations both from Gottfried van Swieten’s German words and the Book of Genesis. If the juxtaposition of evolutionist and creationist thinking already raises eyebrows, the further unusual element is their use of the terms adopted by soundscape ecologist Bernie Krause describing how sound has evolved over time. Accordingly, Geophony, the phonic presence devoid of biological elements; Biophony, the emerging biological world and Androphony, denoting human-generated sounds, delineate the work’s three main sections, framed by a prelude and postlude.

Irrepressible commitment: Brett Dean. Photograph: Bettina Stöß

While lists of words only geologists might decipher without recourse to surtitles were not easily intelligible, the onomatopoeic verve Jocelyn found in words to encompass Krause’s theories – allowing Dean to find comparable musical sounds – was undeniable. Yet it was Darwin’s measured and poetic tone that created the requisite sense of awe, sung by soloists Jennifer France and Patrick Terry with moments of extreme beauty in the intertwining of their soaring lines. These two effectively stole the show, soprano France with her impeccable diction and laser precision, and countertenor Terry in Jocelyn’s zany cabaret sequence, even if its connection to the rest was not obvious.

Dean’s deep understanding of the orchestra came through in the brief, often magical passages of instrumental interlude and, while the postlude gained gravitas from Sir John Tomlinson’s recorded voiceover, it also featured extraordinary chirruping sounds made by 24 specially created whirlytubes. Twirled overhead by choristers, the sounds evoked nothing so much as birdsong in the tallest branches of forests man is destroying.

In This Brief Moment was a City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra 2020 centenary commission and, in this long-awaited premiere conducted with care by Nicholas Collon, Covid’s part in the delay was sombrely referenced in In the Struggle for Existence, setting Darwin, as the 220-strong chorus – the CBSO Chorus and Hallé Choir brilliantly combined – donned black masks.

It spoke volumes for Dean’s irrepressible commitment that he joined the CBSO’s viola section for The Rite of Spring with which his cantata was paired. Stravinsky would have enjoyed the compliment.


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