The Korean-born composer Isang Yun (1917-95) escaped political persecution in his home country by living in Germany for several years, where his reputation and his music, a deft blend of Western chromaticism and Korean folk influences, both flourished. Much of his ceuvre has been faithfully documented on the Camerata and CPO labels, and now Naxos joins in with this welcome disc. The Korean Chamber Ensemble performs with an engaging balance of power and poise, and conductor Borkowski provides several new perspectives on familiar scores.
For one, he offers Tapis (1987), not in its original scoring for string quintet (quartet plus double bass) as was recorded previously on cpo, but in the composer-sanctioned version for string orchestra. In this case, a certain amount of intimacy and nuance is lost-the variety of harmonics, glisses, pizzicato, and vibrato effects which color the quintet textures are swept up in a larger sense of flow, as are the sweet, birdlike fluttering and songful intervals of the individual instruments. In their place, the larger ensemble creates a stronger dramatic ambiance, with a greater emphasis on the contrasting episodes of agitation and tranquility, and a clearer sense of the symbolic separation of low and high strings. There is a significant difference between the two versions, and it's certainly worth hearing both.
Gong-Hu (1984), for harp and 13 strings, was composed for virtuoso harpist Ursula Holliger, and her 1985 recording for Camerata, conducted by her husband Heinz Holliger, is nearly five minutes faster than the new Park/Borkowski performance. The Holligers' forward momentum highlights lyrical flow even as the music alternates between contemplation and flamboyance, with the pointed attack of the harp woven into the swooping, soaring strings. Again, Borkowski looks for the drama in the score, and by his lingering ever so slightly over key passages, the episodic writing has better definition and the folk motives emerge with heightened clarity. The composition is named after the model of Chinese harp that has been a prominent part of Korean music for over 2000 years, traditionally (and symbolically) seen as an instrument for women. Don't be misled, however; there's nothing mild or passive about the difficult role of the harp here, and Rana Park is up to the task, in fact adding a bit more percussive edge to an interpretation equally impressive as that of the music's dedicatee.
Yun's characteristic use of Korean modes and microtones-"bent" reed and sliding string pitches-is brought to the fore in the Chamber Symphony 1 (1987), scored for string ensemble and pairs of horns and oboes. The oboes, a counterpart to the Korean piri, make the most of these extended techniques, as the horns inject fanfares and sustain tones amid string passages of stress and nearstasis. If you've never heard any of Yun's music before, this piece shows off his approach well.
All in all, an attractive disc, and at the price, recommended to the curious as well as aficionados.