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Isang YUN (1917-1995)
Chamber Symphony I (1987) [26:53]
Tapis pour cordes (1987) [8:23]
Gong-Hu for harp and strings (1984) [25:47]
Rana Park (harp)
Korean Chamber Ensemble/Piotr Borkowski
rec. 24-26 August 2005, Seoul National University Concert Hall, Republic of Korea.
NAXOS 8.557938 [61:03]

Isang Yun is a fascinating figure, whose life was so extraordinary that it comes close to distracting attention from his music. He was the son of an important Korean poet, Ki-Hyong Yun, and as a young man he studied music in Japan. In 1941, with the entry of Japan into the War, Yun returned to Korea and was active in resistance to the occupying Japanese, being thrown into prison in 1943. After a spell in hiding, he became a teacher after the war was over. In 1955 he won a Cultural Award which enabled him to travel to Europe to study in Paris with Pierre Revel and in Berlin with Boris Blacher and others. He attended courses in Darmstadt and compositions of his were performed there and elsewhere in Germany. By 1964 he had returned to Germany and was living in Berlin. He was still politically active and three years later was kidnapped by South Korean agents and forcibly returned to Seoul, where he was imprisoned, tortured and sentenced to death. Extensive foreign protests – in which both von Karajan and Stravinsky played a part - led to his eventual release in 1969, when he was permitted to return once more to Germany, as a political refugee. He eventually took German citizenship. He became a Professor of Composition in Hanover and Berlin, and performances of his own music were frequent and well received.

Yun’s music – as was perhaps to be expected – fuses eastern and western elements. Within his use of western ensembles and genres, he incorporates distinctly Korean ideas and philosophies. Yun himself said, "I was born in Korea and project that culture, but I developed musically in Europe. I don’t need to organise or separate elements of the cultures. I am a unity, a simple person. It’s a synthesis." The eastern models which so attracted many modern composers came to Yun as his birthright. There is no temptation for Yun to use ‘oriental’ colours in any kind of superficial fashion; his eastern origins register in more profound ways, as matters of musical philosophy more than surface.

This valuable Naxos CD represents some of Yun’s smaller-scale orchestral works, from the mid-1980s. All of his five symphonies are available on CPO (see review) and a selection of his chamber works on Capriccio (see review).

Gong-Hu is perhaps as near as Yun comes to sounding obviously eastern. It is scored for three first and three second violins, three cellos and a double bass, plus solo harp. Ursula Holliger gave the premiere in 1985, accompanied by the Camerata Bern, under the direction of Heinz Holliger. The title – a more modern transliteration would be konghou – is the name of the Chinese harp, actually introduced to China from Persia. Here, of course, the solo instrument is a western classical harp. The work starts slowly and expressively and there are striking passages which juxtapose pizzicato strings and bowed strings.

Tapis pour cordes exists in versions for string quintet and - as here - string orchestra. There are some luxuriant passages, though a salty dissonance is never too far away. Power and tenderness, strength and delicacy are intimately interwoven with one another. Like most of Yun’s work it is more accessible than the composer’s reputation might sometimes suggest.

Yun’s first Chamber Symphony is in a single long movement, scored for strings plus pairs of horns and oboes. It seems to traverse an emotional landscape over which light gradually, and fitfully, breaks. Imagery of light, and of other natural movements and rhythms, fleeting patterns in sky or water, often seem appropriate to Yun’s music. There is a fluidity at odds with orthodox western structures - for all his occasional employment of serialist methods - changes of direction or dynamics often seem not to be explicable by structural reasons attributable to any external ‘model’, but to have their own organic motivation.

It is, therefore, worth noting his comments in an interview with Bruce Duffie conducted in 1987 (i.e.) at much the time that most of the music on this CD was being written and first performed:

"My music doesn’t have a beginning nor an end. You could combine elements from one piece into another piece very well. This is a Taoist philosophy. Music flows in the cosmos and I have an antenna which is able to cut out a piece of the stream. The part which I’ve cut out is organized and formed through my own thought and body processes, and I commit it to paper. That's why my music is always continuous - like the clouds that are always the same but are never alike one to another."

The results are distinctively beautiful and Naxos deserve our gratitude in making available this music at so reasonable a price. The performances are assured and committed, the recorded sound well balanced and clear.

Glyn Pursglove

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