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alternatively Crotchet

Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
Symphony No.39 in G minor (1765) [18:56]
Symphony No.45 in f sharp minor ‘Farewell’ (1772) [26:34]
Isang YUN (1917-1995)
Chamber Symphony I (1987) [24:24]
Münchener Kammerorchester/Alexander Liebreich
rec. May 2007, Himmelfahrtskirche, München
ECM 2029 (4766188) [69:56] 
Experience Classicsonline

This is Alexander Liebreich’s first recording since he took over artistic directorship of the Munich Chamber Orchestra from Christoph Poppen. ‘Classical’ ECM fans will almost certainly have one or more of their releases, and I am very pleased to say that the immaculately high standards of playing, as well as the excellent ECM recording and invariably interesting and often adventurous programming are richly continued in this fascinating disc. Liebreich has a special affection for the music of Isang Yun, whose music he came to learn during an extended stay in Korea, so it is not entirely surprising that he would be an early contender for inclusion. 

Alexander Liebreich’s choice of these two minor-key symphonies by Haydn is clearly the result of the experimental nature of their form, as well as the sheer inventiveness and dramatic extremes of expression in the music.  His approach to Haydn is intuitive, if not entirely unambiguous: “The question of style is not so urgent, and it’s been debated long enough. This music is straightforward and speaks so clearly for itself that we no longer have to ask ourselves how we want to play it.” Listening to these recordings, and it is clear that Liebreich and his musicians have the ability to allow the music to speak for itself, without abandoning any sense of commitment. Their interpretative savvy means that all of the dynamism is there in spades, the phrasing and shaping of forms on a micro and macro level all feel very ‘right’, and the reduced number of players compared with a full symphony orchestra makes for a tight ensemble, without relinquishing any of the dynamic range or much in the way of weight. There is more than a hint of HIPness about the playing, and vibrato is certainly kept on a very tight leash, but that just all adds to the transparency of the whole thing. An intensely expressive but genuinely ‘simple’ movement such as the Adagio second movement from the ‘Farewell’ symphony becomes a thing of gossamer delicacy with these players, and this contrast between the wild rhythmically driven movements for me creates exactly the right atmosphere, and amply demonstrates the reasons for these works being so exciting and stimulating, even today. The final ‘farewell’ of the Symphony No.45 is very nicely done as an extended, non-gimmicky fadeout, and the muted strings right at the end are truly magical. 

I did wonder about the programme, putting Isang Yun’s Chamber Symphony I at the end, and it might indeed have gone well between the two symphonies, with the ‘farewell’ providing a marvellous open-ended conclusion. The combination between Haydn and Yun might raise an eyebrow or two, but Liebreich is unapologetic regarding the ‘yin yan’ extremes between the two composer’s idioms. Where Haydn is essentially rhythmic in the two symphonies, Yun’s music is very much based on the ‘cantando’ or singing tradition in his native country. This results in a fairly continuous ‘stream’ of melodic sound, but the idiom of the music is far from difficult. The only real difficulty in this juxtaposition is the differences in performing style which emerge. There is consistency with the instrumentation: all of these pieces have oboes, horns and strings, but the sound-world in the modern piece is inevitably very different to Haydn. The horns have a far more solistic role, strings and oboes bring an entirely different intensity with vibrato and other effects, so it is as much the colour of the orchestra as the material in the music which contrasts one composer from the other. 

Liebreich’s own comments on the music are a good starting point: “[This piece] comes from a period in Yun’s career when his personal style - his pattern of an ever-ascending stream of sound - had fully emerged. The stream of sound flows on, articulated by a principle of action and reaction... One impulse triggers a counter-impulse: it’s yin and yang, the microcosm in the macrocosm. A sharp pizzicato in the bass, say, will be answered by a violent gesture in the high register.” This allied to some relatively clear tonal centres, some sliding around on the strings and oboes, and the appearance of a tripartite structure with a softer, more overtly ‘chamber music’ central section, and there are fewer problems and much more to enjoy here than you might expect. There is even a quirkiness which, for my ears, conjures the kind of wit which almost gives a nod towards Malcolm Arnold – certainly the two oboes in thirds in the central section and some of the horn ‘whoops’ later on have this effect, though Yun’s intention may of course have been entirely different. This does however give an idea of what you might be able to expect – no need for nightmares. 

This is a genuinely substantial and fascinating programme of expertly performed chamber orchestral music. Whatever versions of the Haydn Symphonies you may have on your shelves, these will, I suspect, become the ones you keep for special private moments alone when you have nothing to look forward to but a good book and a lie-in the next morning. Isang Yun’s piece is a bit more of a challenge, but what a tremendous way of tantalising your little grey cells. I heartily recommend this disc, and look forward to seeing what ECM and Alexander Liebreich come up with next.

Dominy Clements 



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