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Jeajoon RYU (b. 1970)
Sinfonia da Requiem Op.11 (2008) [42:41]
Violin Concerto No.1 Op.10 (2006) [19:25]
In-Hye Kim (soprano); Polish Radio Choir, Kraków; Camerata Silesia; Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra Warsaw/Łukasz Borowicz (Sinfonia da Requiem)
So-Ock Kim (violin); Podlasie Opera and Philharmonic Orchestra/Piotr Borkowski (Violin Concerto)
rec. Polish Radio Witold Lutoslawski Concert Studio, Warsaw, 6 March 2008 (Sinfonia da Requiem); 3 December 2006 (Concerto)
NAXOS 8.570599 [62:13] 
Experience Classicsonline

Jeajoon Ryu is a name that will not be familiar to the majority of classical music enthusiasts. A South Korean composer not yet forty he studied with Krysztof Penderecki in Warsaw. Indeed all of the performers - with the exception of the featured soloists - are Polish. This is another excellent example of Naxos bringing us superbly engineered and performed recordings of major works that are by definition far from the mainstream.

The main piece here is the Sinfonia da Requiem and this recording dates from March 2008. I presume that it features the same forces as featured in the premiere as part of the 12th Ludwig van Beethoven Easter Festival in Warsaw. Certainly this sounds as if it must be the case; all the performers involved are thoroughly inside the music and play the ferociously hard parts with almost indecent ease. Likewise the choirs have all the weight and resonance that the music demands. At the premiere the piece received a 10 minute standing ovation and was deemed 'a masterpiece' by Penderecki. Masterly in its handling of large-scale forces I agree - but as for being a masterpiece I'm not nearly so sure. Even though Ryu names the Korean professor Sukhi Kang as a major influence it is palpably clear that his Polish studies have been of greatest influence. There is a very clear Central European sound-world at play here both in the use of large slabs of orchestral tone and the essential aesthetic driving the piece. This is unrelentingly serious music. I'm not sure I've listened to forty minutes of such stern music in some time. This is not meant to be a facetious comment. I have listened to this performance several times in different circumstances and while my admiration for it increases my liking for it decreases. It really is very well written. The very opening in particular is extremely effective. The sepulchral basses of the combined choirs hauling themselves up 'from the depths' over lamenting strings and funereal muffled drums is all very atmospheric and powerful. The engineering of the disc is first-rate too - good detail in all parts but in a warm acoustic and with an excellent dynamic range. Absolutely premium price production and performance values offered at bargain price. After this initial choral statement there builds an orchestral stretto which leads on to further choral interjections with the solo soprano's first entrance over-flying the choral writing. The soloist here is soprano In-Hye Kim. She tackles the high lying and vertiginous solo part with total confidence. I wish I could be more enthusiastic about her actual sound - it is certainly dramatic in a way that clearly fits the music but it is rarely beautiful. Also, I have not been able to understand a single word of the text as pronounced by her. It could well be argued that this is not hugely necessary when the text is as familiar as here but I do find closed vowels and few consonants annoying. In the middle of the movement there is a brief pastoral interlude featuring quite stunningly beautiful flute playing but even here the underlying mood of the music does not relax.

As written the Requiem text is divided into three movements of very roughly the same length with a much shorter Sanctus acting as a Coda/Finale with a major key tonality appearing at the very last. I'm sure a detailed study of the score would reveal many subtleties and nuances that the ear alone cannot divine at early acquaintance. My abiding sense is the unrelentingly minor key sobriety of it all. I miss those glimpses of sunshine through the clouds that allow many of the greatest Requiems to offer solace and hope as well as loss and grief. In his three paragraph introduction to the piece Ryu says it was inspired by the suffering of his fellow South Koreans in the aftermath of the Korean War and is a tribute 'to those who have devoted themselves to the development of Korea and who strove for the greater prosperity and international reputation of our country'. Given that Christianity is the main religion of Korea it would have been interesting to know whether it figures significantly in Ryu's own life because I can't quite equate the music that is here with the dedication quoted above.

So having been left rather battered by the Sinfonia da Requiem I moved on to the Violin Concerto No.1. This dates - in performance terms - from some sixteen months before the Requiem and again this recording seems to be by the same performers as those who gave the premiere. Again, the music is served by excellent engineering and by fine playing from soloist and orchestra alike. The solo part in particular is played with total security and tonal beauty by So-Ock Kim. At nineteen minutes long and in a single movement span it clearly has a more modest remit than the companion work here. Once again sobriety rules the day. The writing is complex and taxing but I long for even the slightest hint of a lightening of the spirit. The ending of the work is strangely perfunctory - an abrupt closure rather than a sense of arrival. Clearly this is a carefully considered musical choice but by then I'd rather lost interest in trying to follow Ryu's musical rationale; my loss I am sure.

Powerfully performed premieres of oddly uninvolving music.

Nick Barnard



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