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Isang YUN (1917-1995)
Sunrise Falling
Cello Concerto (1976) [30:32]
Interludium A for solo piano (1982) [11:28]
Glissées for solo cello (1970) [16:05]
Fanfare and Memorial (1979) for orchestra [16:33}
Violin Concerto No 1 (1981) [40:15]
Kontraste. Two pieces for solo violin (1987) [17:53]
Gasa for violin and piano (1963) [14:38]
Matt Haimovitz, cello; Yumi Hwang-Williams, violin; Christoph Bielefeld, harp
Maki Namekawa (Interludium A), Dennis Russell Davies (Gasa) piano
Bruckner Orchester, Linz / Dennis Russell Davies
rec. 2017, Tippet Rise Arts Center, Fishtail, USA; Musiktheater am Volksgarten, Grosser Orchestersaal & Brucknerhaus, Linz, Austria
SACD/CD Hybrid stereo/surround 5.0; reviewed in SACD Stereo
PENTATONE PTC5186693 SACD [74:58 + 73:01]

Is ‘maverick’ too loaded a word to describe the twentieth century Korean composer Isang Yun? He was certainly one of a kind, but there is perhaps a seriousness of purpose in all of his music which doesn’t hang comfortably with such an epithet. There is both austerity and beauty in his work, much of which seems to inhabit a unique terrain that intersects the instruments, flavours and techniques of Korean traditional music on the one hand, and the post-serial Darmstadt world on the other.

For those readers who are unaware of Yun’s extraordinary background, his father was a poet and he started composing music as a teenager; he formally studied composition in Japan until that country entered World War 2 at which point he returned to his homeland and participated in the Korean independence movement. In 1943 he was captured by the Japanese and imprisoned. After his release at the end of the war he taught, latterly at the University of Seoul before moving to Europe in 1956 to complete his own musical studies. In 1959 he settled with his family in (West) Germany, but in 1967 he was kidnapped by South Korean agents, accused of espionage (charges later shown to have been completely fabricated), and was taken back to Seoul, where he was tortured, forced to confess, threatened with the death penalty and ultimately sentenced to life imprisonment. An international campaign for his immediate release was swiftly organised and a petition signed by the musical ‘glitterati’ of the time, including conductors of the stature of Karajan, Klemperer, Keilberth and fellow composers such as Stravinsky, Henze, Stockhausen, Ligeti and many others. He was released in early 1969 and returned to Germany for good in 1971. He never went back to South Korea, though he did regularly visit the North having established cultural links with Kim Il –sung’s regime in Pyongyang, which inevitably led to criticism from many sources. He was a vocal supporter of Korean reunification; after his previous treatment by the South, one can perhaps empathise with his perspective. One thing seems certain to me; all of Yun’s pieces I have encountered are suffused with deep integrity.

The most personal and serious work here is the Cello Concerto. It has been recorded twice before, but Matt Haimowitz’s account must lay claim to being the best played and recorded to date. Dennis Russell Davies has been an advocate of Yun’s music for most of his life; he knew the composer, and the present performance seems to have benefitted from months of preparation on the part of all the performers. It thus sounds more fluent, coherent and heartfelt than both rival recordings. It’s arguably the Yun work that most explicitly references his time as a political prisoner, and Haimovitz and Davies have fashioned a searing, intense account that lays bare the work’s essence, the stark conflict between individual (the soloist) and broadly authoritarian society (the orchestra). I get the impression from the old Palm account (with the Berlin RSO on Camerata 32-CM22) and its better recorded successor on Capriccio 773610 (Maintz/Deutsche RSO/ Asbury) that this subtext is rather pushed into the background. In any case the piece is a tough listen – the gentle opening with its ethereal, fragile cello against a faceless grey background quickly becomes something more astringent, violent percussion and baying brass effectively persecuting the vulnerable soloist, who receives at best a level of compromised sympathy from the softer instruments such as flutes and high strings. The work starts with the note A, a symbol of innocence – literally the beginning. When the original material returns in the first section Haimovitz injects a chilling degree of anger rather than nostalgia into its expression. Yun also references traditional Korean music in this piece by getting the cello to mimic a zither-like instrument, the kŏmun'go at moments which seem to represent a pained looking-back. Most harrowing of all are the references to Yun’s incarceration and torture, particularly a section where a funereal monodic passage for the soloist is succeeded by an eerie episode where low strings, alto flute, bass clarinet and most importantly temple block evoke the hastily arranged Buddhist burials of prisoners that didn’t survive, sounds that would never leave Yun. Of all the works here the Cello Concerto is the piece that most demands and repays repeated listening, it can sound somewhat piecemeal at first. Pentatone’s superb recording bays and glows by turn, the solo playing reveals Haimovitz’s deep commitment to a piece he only recently got to know, while the orchestra clinically project Dennis Russell Davies thorough absorption of Yun’s singular vision. While Pentatone’s multi-channel sound in this set is generally stunning in the case of the Cello Concerto I actually found the two speaker option better conveyed its compressed intensity.

The other concerto here, the Violin Concerto No 1 of 1981 (Yun wrote two more in his last decade), is warmer and more accessible than its cello counterpart. Where the cello work implies conflict and opposition, the violin work offers more in the way of complementarity and consensus between soloist and orchestra. It has apparently been recorded before (Tatsumi/Frankfurt RSO/ Mácal, on Camerata 30 –CM68) but I had never previously heard it. Again I was deeply impressed. It’s a longish piece set in three movements of roughly 13 minutes apiece. Its lush, broad opening theme projects a romantic sweep, and what follows is rich in the bent notes and glissandi which Yun uses right across his oeuvre to tap into his Korean heritage. In fact one might argue that this work presents characteristically Korean melodic, harmonic and textural content within a recognisably Western structure. Its orchestration veers between delicate beauty, exemplified by much use of harp and tuned percussuion, and gaunt, angular brassy outbursts. The second movement is elegiac and serious in tone, at times its opening recalls Lutoslawski’s Funeral Music for strings. The solo violin material is anchored around extended, slow phrases in its middle register. The comprehensive notes suggest that this central panel represents “grief and lament” on the one hand and “hopes and dreams” on the other. It is calm, rather sad, always dignified music; it has a pastel charm, tempered by its delicate use of percussion. The finale has the cut of a rather fractured Perpetuum mobile. The solo writing projects defiant, thorny virtuosity in the face of dissonant and aggressive brass and timpani. The superb Yumi Hwang-Williams projects this music excitingly and with evident coherence, apparently unfazed by its blatant technical difficulty. The Linz band are again more than up to the challenge and sound as though they have been playing Yun for years. This Violin Concerto is involving and at times invigorating; in this case it’s often sensuous colouring gains in detail in the multi-channel option. The only down side is that one is also more aware of an audience seemingly beset by bronchial issues.

There is a third orchestral piece in this set, the enigmatic ‘Fanfare and Memorial’ which also suggests a concertante element, featuring as it does a prominent role for Yun’s beloved harp. The opening fanfare evokes a kind of Oriental Copland in its gaunt austerity. This material is developed at first by the strings and subsequently the full orchestra. These variations soften as the harp enters. This is music which exudes a benign nostalgia, amplified by an important role for the orchestral flutes.. The central section is more animated, even a little harsher in tone, but it conceals a beautiful, yearning episode for deep strings, harp, blocks and oboe. The original fanfare material recurs several times in various different forms throughout the piece which proceeds with increased and attractive use of tuned percussion. The coda involves an orchestral tutti, with prominent brass which fully develop the fanfare material, before final blasts on timpani and trumpets pre-empt the work’s conclusion.

These three contrasting, colourful and unusual concertos are without doubt the main attractions in this set. They are all works of deep sincerity, unusual colouration and considerable originality. But the four substantial chamber and instrumental pieces that are also included are far from makeweights. The piano work Interludium A Is based on and around the note A. It contrasts a series of dissonant, somewhat granitic chords with more virtuosic, ornamented material which liberates the music implicit within them. Consequently the work alternates implacably static music with freer, somewhat lighter content, although I ultimately found the piece to be a tough listen. The narrative regularly returns to the note A, the ‘anchor’ of the work, and this certainly assists the listener in navigating its somewhat inscrutable trajectory. Maki Namekawa’s account seems to be a little more fluent and confident than the more tentative Kara Min on a mixed Naxos recital of Korean piano music (review).

I found Glissees for cello, virtuosically despatched here by Matt Haimovitz to be even more challenging. This work comprises four studies which via the base metal of the glissando attempt to harness the sounds of the two stringed haegeum violin and the kŏmun'go zither. Each study is symmetrical in itself but builds upon the material of its predecessor, thus creating an intensification as the work proceeds. As might be expected these studies are rich in extended techniques which at times inhabit a soundworld not dissimilar to that of Xenakis.

The two chamber works involving Yumi Hwang-Williams’ solo violin constitute Yun’s earliest and latest pieces in this set. The title of Gasa (1963) with piano alludes to a genre of medieval Korean poetry which over centuries eventually gave its name to a type of song with a particular slow-fast-slow structure. The solo part unsurprisingly relates to traditional Korean singing whose thin tones are offset early in the piece against a backdrop of rather Darmstadtian piano, played here by Dennis Russell Davies. The overall shape of the piece seems to rely greatly on this juxtaposition of dislocated blocks of piano sound set against a more subtly differentiated primer of lyrical, ‘vocal’ singing violin, although the central section incorporates more fluid, colourful piano writing. Gasa seems to palpably mellow as it approaches its delicate conclusion. To my ears it is something of a period piece and represents a stark collision of two distant aesthetic worlds.

Kontraste from 1987 is a substantial diptych for solo violin. The first piece begins in a somewhat static manner and features a slowly unfolding pizzicato episode. There follows material which seems to embody human singing, avian fluttering and trilling, its impassioned arco content presenting a direct contrast to the rather rigid pizzicato. The second piece begins in a flighty higher register, its material rapid and elusive; ultimately this shorter piece relies on the distinction between animated filigree-based material and slower cantabile content, coloured by the ornamentation of bent notes and portamenti. Yumi Hwang-Williams’ compelling performances are by turn impassioned and delicate, while she certainly manages to humanise Yun’s more challenging writing. The recorded sound for these pieces is very immediate, rather in-one’s-face in fact; again I would argue it makes its point more incisively through two speakers.

It is well-nigh impossible to separate Isang Yun’s musical achievement from the narrative of his dramatic life-story, and like contemporaries such as Nono and Xenakis his art is surely best appreciated via the prism of an awareness of his story. But the uniqueness of Yun’s music also owes much to the local trappings of his birthplace. It can thus be interpreted as the by-product of a collision between personality, place and politics. In my view Pentatone’s exceptional presentation affords Yun the importance and respect his work certainly merits. The commitment of all the performers involved is quite beyond question, but Dennis Russell Davies deserves special praise for conceiving the project in the first place. It will take its place on my shelves alongside CPO’s essential cycle of Yun’s five symphonies, and hopefully will instigate a long-overdue reassessment of this most singular figure.

Richard Hanlon

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