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Isang YUN (1917-1995)
East West Miniature I, for oboe and cello (1993) [5:18]
Rencontre, for clarinet, harp and cello (1986) [17:16]
Interludium A, for piano (1986) [12:25]
Quartet for oboe and string trio (1994) [16:31]
Sonata for violin and piano - first version (1991) [21:24]
East West Miniature II, for oboe and cello (1993) [4:37}
Shota Takahashi (oboe), Walter Grimmer (cello), Georg Arzberger (clarinet), Maria Stange (harp), Kaya Han (piano), Egidius Streiff (violin), Mariana Doughty (viola)
rec. 2017/18, Wolfgang-Rihm-Forum, Hochschule für Musik Karlsruhe, Germany
CAPRICCIO C5364 [77:31]

Late last year, Pentatone released Sunrise Falling, an exceptional two-disc set which included stellar performances of two of Isang Yun’s most extraordinary works, the first violin concerto (with Yumi Hwang-Williams) and the cello concerto (Matt Haimovitz), as well as a varied and representative assortment of instrumental, chamber and orchestral pieces. I was fortunate to be asked to review that issue, and feel equally blessed to have received this new disc from Capriccio, which focuses very squarely on Yun’s late chamber output. All the pieces here emerged in the last decade of his life and each has a softer, more lyrical underbelly than might be expected from this composer.

Of these six works, the one that arguably sits least comfortably with that characterisation is the piano solo Interludium ‘A’, Yun’s extended study around the note A, and the one piece here that also featured in the Pentatone set. I note that I found Maki Namekawa’s gritty account “…. a tough listen…”, although I preferred it to Klara Min’s reading on an earlier recital of Korean piano music on Naxos (8.572406). Kaya Han’s approach to the work is more supple than either of those recordings – she is an experienced advocate of Yun’s music and perhaps reaps the benefit of her deeper familiarity with the work to reveal a softer core to this challenging piece than I had previously perceived – careful differentiation in dynamics and tempi are perhaps responsible; Han also elicits a broader palette of colour in the louder episodes. There is often an elasticity and freedom in Yun’s music which imply that two diametrically opposed interpretations can equally convince. I’m not sure that the two versions I’m considering are so completely different in their overall execution, but I found Kaya Han’s reading ultimately more subtle and arguably humane than both of her predecessors’.

And for me humanity forms the bedrock of Yun’s entire output; it is certainly to the fore in the other pieces here. Walter-Wolfgang Sparrer is considered to be the major authority on Yun’s music, and at the heart of his characteristically eloquent notes for the present disc is a consideration of the important role Taoist philosophy plays within this oeuvre. It works on many levels: the importance of the single note to the conception of the whole (made manifest in Interludium ‘A’) is one example. Another is the idea of the unity of opposites which is captured in two very late little pieces for oboe and cello that Yun entitled East-West-Miniatures and which comprise the book-ends of this album. These pieces were inspired by the leaf of the Gingko tree, native to China, whose form appears divided when young, yet unified when mature. More specifically the tree was the subject of Goethe’s famous poem ‘Gingko Biloba’ from his West-östlicher Diwan collection (1819), hence Yun’s title. If it appears superficial to allude to yin and yang at this point, the first piece appears melancholy and dark to my ears, the oboe lamenting and appealing, the cello at times gruff and unforthcoming whereas the second seems lighter, more sanguine and accepting, with the singing cello lines intertwining with trilling oboe, although its conclusion is more ambiguous. The pieces seem complementary, and Yun makes telling use of imitation. The playing of Shota Takahashi and Walter Grimmer is naturally beautiful and almost improvisatory, while the recording is vivid, warm and immediate.

The centrepieces of this fine disc however, are three of Yun’s finest extended chamber works. Rencontre for clarinet, harp and cello could almost be a response to Debussy’s sonata for flute, harp and viola. The harp is a mediating presence throughout, although it adopts an assertive role for much of the work, balancing a tentative lyricism in the cello and a more declamatory, acerbic clarinet part, although in Yun’s inimitable style these latter instruments seem to swap roles from time to time. Rencontre is a deceptive piece that frequently wrongfoots the listener; it’s undeniably attractive, though seemingly troubled. Its conclusion is especially perplexing and intriguing; an air of exhaustion seems to haunt the music for a time before an unexpected acceleration leads to a lively, almost effusive coda in which the cello and clarinet both seem to reach for unattainable celestial heights.

Yun radically cut sections from his 1991 Sonata for violin and piano shortly before its premiere, ostensibly to reinforce the transparency of the violin part. In Walter-Wolfgang Sparrer’s view this was a mistake, and here Egidius Streiff and Kaya Han deliver a majestic performance of the original version in what is its first recording. By Yun’s standards the opening is rather conventional, with the expressive violin singing over the piano’s chordal, punctuating accompaniment but this soon develops more unpredictably, with a rapid piano episode echoed by the violin in lively, almost neo-classical vein. Essentially the first part of the work is mercurial and turbulent, at times almost Bartokian. But the second part is slow and, reflective. There is a magical passage at 15:00 which is prayer-like in its simplicity, whereby Streiff’s violin almost seems to speak. The sonata’s conclusion is profoundly affecting as the work evaporates into nothingness.

The quartet for oboe and string trio from 1994 was Yun’s last chamber work: it is a mature masterpiece of elegance and power. It was written for Heinz Holliger who recorded it for ECM in 2003 with Thomas Zehetmair, Ruth Killius and Thomas Demenga (review). That the present performance by Takahashi, Streiff, Grimmer and Mariana Doughty on viola is not remotely overshadowed by their perhaps more celebrated ECM counterparts is a tribute to the blazing conviction of their playing. Yun must have known his days were numbered yet the swifter outer sections of this tripartite work are very alive and at times almost perky, with a trilling oboe in the final section which strongly hints at birdsong. But it is the slow, central panel that dominates this quartet. The darker, pianissimo, sustained string tones and the questioning elongated bent notes in the oboe coalesce to produce searching, elegiac music of piercing, unaffected beauty. Yun’s oboe quartet is a work that resonates in one’s mind long after its conclusion, and it constitutes the highlight of this superbly played and recorded disc.

It is largely down to CPO, ECM and Capriccio (three German labels) that Isang Yun’s legacy is primarily being maintained and reinforced. Connoisseurs of the finest modern music have much to thank them for. With the eyes of the world drawn ever more closely to events unfolding on and around the Korean peninsula, the two outstanding recent releases I have had the good fortune to review strongly suggest that Yun’s time has finally come.

Richard Hanlon

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