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Isang YUN (1917-1995)
Symphony No. 1 (1982/83)
Symphony No. 2 (1984)
Symphony No. 3 (1985)
Symphony No. 4 (1986)
Symphony No. 5 (1987) +
Naui Dang, Naui Minjokiyo! (My Land, My People) (1987) *
Exemplum in memoriam Kwangju (1981)
Richard Salter (baritone) +
Myung-Sil Kim (soprano), Young-Ok Kim (alto), Sun-Chai Pak (tenor) and Yong-Yin Han (bass) with the Chorus and State
Symphony Orchestra of the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea conducted by Byung-Hwa Kim *
Symphonies played by the Filharmonia Pomorska Bydgoszcz/Takao Ukigaya
Recorded 1986-87 (Naui Dang, Naui Minjokiyo! (My Land, My people)
Exemplum in memoriam Kwangju) and 1991-93 (Symphonies)
CPO 999 165-2 [4CDs: 241.31]

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 over again.

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.

Jonathan Woolf

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