Isang Yun, who died in 1995, lived a long life
much of which was occupied in political engagement. Arrested by
the Japanese in 1943 he was tortured and imprisoned and then released.
After a post-War stint as a teacher he moved to Paris and then
to Berlin where he based himself studying with, amongst others,
Boris Blacher. It was in Berlin that he was kidnapped by South
Korea’s secret police and flown to Seoul to stand trial – and
face imprisonment once again. On his release he returned to Berlin
where he taught composition and the recordings documented here
are from this later period. They focus on Yun’s reconciliation
of Korean and avant-garde Western music. The Symphonies certainly
reflect a pronounced interest in cyclic connections and they form
a concrete compositional block, as had, rather earlier, his series
of instrumental concertos.
The First Symphony is one of the longest.
Its instrumental and lexicological concerns are ones that remain
constant throughout the cycle. Brass and oppositional blocks and
what they mean - beyond the merely antagonistic and musical –
and a stern, unyielding modernistic dialectic predominate. The
brass immutability that begins the symphony is followed immediately
by the striving strings’ response, underpinned by brittle percussion
– another Yun trademark. Brass, string body and percussion take
on independent orchestral roles. The trumpets – muted and open
– soon lead on to a violent outburst, the conflict inherent in
these block oppositions becoming ever more explicit. The notes
speak of the "quiet peacefulness" of the second movement.
Well, each to his own but I hear a strange kind of peaceability.
Each section seems to act independent of each other, the hint
of snarl and wary percussion lending a cautious, edgy air to the
music. There is in fact a sense of omnipresent unease despite
the violins’ high lying writing. The third movement is a vigorous
Scherzo punctuated by oscillating winds, deep bass sonorities
and pesky trumpets. There’s a brief moment of relaxation – a trio
section of sorts – for oboe and violin and other wind tracery.
The finale is dense, powerful, glowering with moments of relative
stasis. The close is ambiguously affirmative.
The Second Symphony reprises many of these
constituent elements. The searing drive and activity of the opening
is sustained even whilst it accommodates less fractious moments.
The central movement, of this three-movement symphony, inhabits
a rather sterner sound world. It is opaque, forbidding even if
Yun allows some Korean-sounding string writing to appear. The
texture does lighten, some tinkling percussion and dream-like
imagery and fluttering violins having their moment, before strong,
decisive and hieratic brass writing sweeps in. There are more
Korean string mouldings in the finale but accompanied once again
by glowering brass. Yun treats his orchestra sectionally here
to a powerful degree – and the action is frenetic, accompanied
by some frankly bizarre percussive incidents, even though the
end of the work is attractive and relatively peaceable. The Third
in his cycle is clearly sectional but written in one movement,
twenty-four minutes in length. Yun dubbed it a "philosophical"
work. It certainly opens in withdrawn, terse style before opening
out into more ominously active areas of orchestral exploration.
Yun’s trumpet writing is often redolent of a degree of acerbic
barbarity. His strings, as here, often relax into moments of temporary
stasis. Again, as here, he frequently writes very high lying passages
for the violin, presumably to explore the striving, materially
and philosophically, that he can thus engender. As so often his
winds oscillate whilst the puncturing trumpets drive into the
texture. There are some intriguing juxtapositions and sonorities
but whilst the last section erupts with insistent strength I felt,
as Yoggi Berra so memorably put it, déjà vu all
The two-movement Fourth Symphony employs
the Korean Sijo form in the opening for cellos and double basses
– a kind of brisk melismatic movement. This is immediately interrupted
and indeed contradicted by brutal brass and percussive interjections
– and they drive on to an inexorable ascent. The slashing violins
are answered by the brusque brass. Each thematic and orchestral
impulse becomes explicit here, from the yearning of the Korean
fiddles to the drum tattoos and the spitting, vicious brass. By
contrast the calm reflection of the second movement rises to some
peaks of drama. But things are very much reduced, both in dynamics
and instrumental starkness. The forceful tutti close seems all
the more pressing as a result.
The Fifth Symphony was premiered in 1987,
the year of Yun’s 70th birthday. It’s a long work,
lasting 55 minutes, written for orchestra and baritone solo after
the poems of Nelly Sachs. It was originally written for Fischer-Dieskau
and whilst Yun’s post-Schoenbergian aesthetic is striking, the
skeletal bones of Mahler are visible, at least in schematic form.
The opening movement (of five) is gloomy, long-breathed. Richard
Salter, the English baritone, is a most incisive and intelligent
musician and he brings considerable verbal acumen to bear as well
as declamatory tone. This is an intensely incursive setting of
Sachs’ poem - hammering, shrieking, and engendering a striking
orchestral tumult after Salter’s intense singing. The second setting
– these are pacific poems telling of the need to foreswear violence
– contains a degree of sprechgesang as well as tam-tam and gong.
The pleading of the last verse is cut short by a vicious orchestral
slam, the equivalent of a door in the face. In the Appeal, the
third movement, a nasty, spitting orchestra depicts pictorial
ugliness. Even though the interlude that follows is calm and reflective
the monumental power and certainties soon reassert themselves
and the end is one of violently stabbing violins and percussion.
You Who Watch is a pleading poem that receives a hectoring setting.
There are lots of glissandi here and whilst Yun strives for melismatic
nobility he is hampered by insistence and lack of variety. The
final setting is one that had me thinking explicitly of Mahler.
Peace (Frieden) is Yun’s Abschied. At the close Yun finally unleashes
his hieratic, implacable brass, percussive bells as the complex
unravelling begins and the work concludes in some formal ambiguity
though achieving a kind of felt resolution.
CPO’s box is concluded by a fourth CD of differing
provenance. My land, My People is an explicitly
political vocal work written in the epic declamatory Korean vocal
style. It employs sung sections of glissandi and some eloquently
expressive duets in what is, in formal terms, a kind of oratorio.
Yun’s orchestration is necessarily less monumental and more clearly
sympathetic to his native vocal model. That said the music deals
in part with the most brutal of subject matter and the translations
of the text give some indication of the material: Your face is
cut by sabres/Your roots are cut by an axe/Your trunk is riddled
with bullets of foreign regimes/But you withstand the cold storm/Oh
Sangsuri tree. Yun employs distinctly folkloric elements in the
fourth movement for reasons, he said, of clarity. The music is
indeed much more affirmative – and simple – where he chooses to
employ the folk element. Coupled with this is Exemplum in
memoriam Kwangju, a twenty-minute work for orchestra.
This is another battering ram. Wave upon wave of orchestral assault,
defiant and visceral, a mêlée of sometimes vocalised
sounds, break upon the listener with something approaching unstoppable
force. Exemplum was written in memory of a military massacre in
that city and the quasi-descriptive, pictorial writing lends force
to Yun’s writing. Moments of quiet shock and stasis are also there
but the abiding memory is of palpable terror.
These four CDs are housed in a CPO boxed set.
The notes are sometimes minutely detailed as to Yun’s compositional
procedures which whilst academically of utilitarian function is
frankly off-putting to general listeners. The recording levels
and balances are generally fine – the orchestras are excellently
committed – but there are moments when the proximity becomes overpowering.
The frequently stern and unyielding music enshrined in the box
reflects Yun’s own bitter experience. Whether it is successful
in a broader sense I think you must judge.