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Isang YUN (1917-1995)
Nore (1964, rev. 1968) [8:33]
Interludium A (1982) [10:18]
Intermezzo (1988) [8:29]
Glisées (1970) [15:43]
Espace I (1992) [11:40]
Shao Yang Yin (1966, arr. 1996)
Duo (1984) [14:27]
Sieben Etüden – Part 1 (1993) [16:11]
Fünf Stücke (1958) [6:04]
Sieben Etüden – Part II (1993) [15:44]
Adele Bitter (cello)
Holher Groschopp (piano)
Artists in Conversation: Isang Yun, Mirjam Wiesemann in conversation with Holger Groschopp
rec. 2017/18, Erholungshaus at BAYER AG, Leverkusen.
Reviewed in SACD binaural stereo.

Ysang Yun’s remarkable life story, including his abduction from West Berlin to South Korea in the 1960s, make for compulsive listening in this ‘Artists in Conversation’ release, which celebrates the 10th anniversary of an edition that has plenty of fascinating spoken word documents and excellent music recordings in its catalogue. The spoken words are all in German of course, so that is always a consideration.

What we also have here is “a portrait sketch” with a selection of Yun’s works for cello and piano. The cello was Yun’s own instrument, and it represents “an ideal medium for a connection between the music of the Far East and the West, and for a constant back-and-forth translation between the two poles.” Yun’s music can seem a bit gnarly to start with, and you’ll need to be prepared to work on your contemporary music antennae. Nore, for instance, the earliest ‘official’ work for cello and piano, was considered too difficult for the player so the planned première never took place. There is a fierce abstraction here, but also references to traditional Korean music and some strikingly bluesy chords here and there. Abstraction and rhetorical gesture remain a feature with Interludium A for piano solo, the note ‘A’ taking on an obsessive central axis function from which calm atmosphere and extreme virtuosity emerge, the wide dynamics of the piano sound even serving up a couple of minor peak-level distortions in the recording – that or my equipment can’t cope with the signal.

Intermezzo was originally written for cello and accordion and also forms part of a chamber Quartet, its extraction to form a relatively approachable single work “partly attributable to Yun’s growing belief that any concrete work could be regarded as a section of an infinite and universal continuum of sound.” This idea is developed in Espace I, which explores ever-expanding intervals, though this by no means implies mathematical progression or symmetry. This is however a less intense experience than some of the other works, despite its wide-ranging nature. Glisées for solo cello is an impressive blend of sonic influences, giving the instrument a vocal nature at times, with distinctly Eastern flavours, the glissando effect being something of which there are apparently thirty types in Korean music. A plectrum is used in the third of its four movements, and there are plenty of moments in which you forget that this is a cello at all.

Shao Yang Yin is originally for harpsichord, and is another early move towards Western modernity in Yun’s idiom. The idea of a nocturne inhabits original ideas for a title, and there is a sense of silence behind the notes. Pianist and Yun specialist Kaya Han prepared this piano version, using the full dynamics and range of the instrument to create a work filled with drama and at times brooding moods. Duo is also a transformation, from harp to piano in its partnering of the cello, which in turn is again taken into realms that suggest Asian string instruments. The final movement is a ‘fairy tale reverie’ for the wedding of Yun’s son Ugiong.

The Sieben Etüden can be played separately or in any order, and cellist Adele Bitter starts with the lively fourth study. Yun’s philosophy about the ever-increasing demands on musicians in these kinds of works was, “not in the service of a perfection of virtuosity, but rather for the sake of finding ever new possibilities in expression and sound.” The expressive depths in the long line of the first study serve as an illustration of this attitude, and there is a sense of lightness, fun and wit elsewhere in the collection which isn’t easily found in most of the other works here. The Sieben Etüden are divided into two sections, with the Fünf Stücke for piano in between. These inhabit the atonal, dodecaphonic world prevalent in the 1950s avant-garde, and are compact to the point of aphorism. These are highly crafted miniatures, representing Yun’s immersion in Western culture and providing a springboard for his own unique integration between East and West. As he once stated, “European music is ‘built’, East Asian music ‘flows’,” and this is a significant key in grasping Yun’s work.

As ever from Cybele, this is a lavish production with a glossy booklet in English and German. The spoken texts are in German as previously mentioned, but there are numerous English indicators at cue points for the discs printed in the booklet which provide helpful orientation if needed. This is yet another valuable resource, and volume 11 in an ever-growing library of essential documents from this source.

Dominy Clements

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