Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Unsuk Chin Concertos

Unsuk Chin - concertos - Decca
Unsuk Chin Piano Concerto, Cello Concerto, Su for Sheng and Orchestra; Sunwook Kim, Alban Gerhardt, Wu Wei, Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra, Myung-Whun Chung
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Aug 23 2014
Star rating: 4.0

Three contrasting concertos from the Korean composer Unsuk Chin

Unsuk Chin as a composer is associated very much with her opera Alice in Wonderland which premiered at the Bavarian State Opera in 2007. This new disc showcases other sides to the Korean composer, her relationship with the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra (where she has been composer in residence since 2006) and her sequence of concertos spanning 13 years, with the Piano Concerto of 1996/7, Cello Concerto of 2008/9, revised 2013 and Su for sheng and orchestra (2009) a concerto for the sheng, an ancient oriental mouth-organ with a 3000 year history.

This recording on Deutsche Grammophon features the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Myung-Whun Chung, with Sunwook Kim (piano), Alban Gerhardt (cello) and Wu Wei (sheng).

Unsuk Chin's Piano Concerto was commissioned by the BBC for the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. The work is in four movements and to the standard orchestra Unsuk Chin adds two dozen percussion instruments and a celeste. The result is to provide a varied sound world, in which the percussive piano sound can be emulated by these extra instruments so that instead of being spotlit, the piano becomes part of the texture. Texture is important in all three concertos and Usuk Chin's writing is clearly an exploration of the possibility of texture rather than pure melody and harmony. In the piano concerto there is a sense, during the movements, of the piano gradually emerging from the orchestral texture and becoming more spotlit.

The first movement is all brilliant glittery texture (reminding me in passing of Tippett's writing for piano in his concerto). It is very much a moto perpetuo and there are moments when you are not sure whether you are wishing to piano or the percussion. The slower second movement emerges from quiet with just hints of percussion. Though slower and quieter, the movement still explores the percussive side to the piano. It is here that I felt my lack of knowledge of Korean traditional music, so I have no way of knowing how Unsuk Chin's writing is influenced by this. The texture becomes fragmentary in the third movement with jabs from the bass and sustained strings complementing the glittering arpeggio figurations. Here the piano starts to emerge more as a soloist. Things get denser as the movement progresses, but still with a skittish, skittery feel. The final movement combines low pedal notes, eerie strings with a fast an furious piano solo. Its jazz influences seem to related back to some of the piano writing in the first movement.

Throughout, soloist Sunwook Kim is admirable. His technical command of the difficult piano part is superb but he does not thrust himself into the spotlight, taking his place within Unsuk Chin's conception of the work's structure.

Unsuk Chin's Cello Concerto was written for cellist Alban Gerhardt, and premiered at the BBC Proms. The revised version of the work was commissioned by the Bayerisches Staatsorchester and the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra. Again in four movements, it starts from nothing, just a single held note from the cello. From this the cellist's line develops into a singing cantilena in dialogue with the orchestra. As the movement develops both solo line and orchestra get busier, but there is also a sense of stasis as if the dialogue is circling round, not going anywhere. A big orchestral crash leads into the vibrantly exciting second movement, with its fast, skittery cello part which accelerates the movement to climax. Things slow down in the third movement, where a single note from the soloists harks back to the opening. A haunting rather static texture slowly builds into an intense drama with the cellist contributing a powerful singing line. The virtuoso cello part in the final movement is constantly interrupted by crashes in the orchestra, creating a powerful sense of musical drama.

Soloist Alban Gerhardt's performance is masterly, as he combines brilliant technical effects with a strong sense of the work's underlying dramatic thrust.

Wu Wei - © Elsa Thorpe
Wu Wei - © Elsa Thorpe
The final work on the disc is perhaps the most difficult to apprehend. It was written for the soloist Wu Wei, who has showed himself open to the developing the possibilities of the sheng. The work is in one long movement, whose whole tenor is taken from the sound and technical abilities of the sheng, which does at times sound frankly like a mouth organ (which made me wonder whether Wu Wei has looked at RVW's Romance written for the harmonica player Tommy Reilly).

We start with eerie sustained notes from the soloist, complemented by similar passages in the orchestra plus the occasional gong. In the faster passages, Wu Wei uses a remarkable tremolando technique which sounds very eerie indeed. Ultimately I found the work coming over as a sequence of exotic textures without the sense or drama in the previous two works on the disc. I will be hearing the work live at the Proms on Wed 27 August when  it will be played by Wu Wei, the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra and Myung-Whun Chung and I hop to come to grips more with the work in live performance.

Throughout this disc, the playing of the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra is of a very high order. Unsuk Chin's writing is often technically challenging, and requires a great deal of control. under Myung-Whun Chung's direction the orchestra clearly not only has the technical expertise but the sympathy with Unsuk Chin's writing to take us into the heart of her sound world.

The works on this disc are not the necessarily easily approachable and Unsuk Chin's style requires some work from the listener. But her orchestra writing seems to come with an innate sense of drama which can be very rewarding, along with a sound world which though complex has its seductions.

Unsuk Chin (born 1953) - Piano Concerto (1996/97) [22.42]
Unsuk Chin (born 1953) - Cello Concerto (2008/9, rev. 2013) [29.07]
Unsuk Chin (born 1953) - Su for sheng and orchestra (2009) [21.19]
Sunwook Kim (piano)
Alban Gerhardt (cello)
Wu Wei (sheng)
Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra
Myung-Whun Chung (conductor)
Recorded live at the Seoul Arts Centre, 9, 10 January 2014 (Su for sheng and orchestra) / SPO recording studio 13-18 January 2014
Deutsche Grammophon 481 0971 1CD [72.13]

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