Unsuk Chin (born 1961) is the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra’s composer-in-residence, and this release of first recordings helps to cement that arrangement. The concerto is the primary form of expression within Unsuk Chin’s orchestral output, and these three works – each with their dedicatee as soloist – demonstrate a close relationship between composer and performer.
The most striking of the three is undoubtedly Šu (2009), which gives a platform for the sheng to be heard in a Western musical form. The sonorities of this work will almost certainly be new to ‘classical’ ears, but the sheng – essentially a mouth organ – is one of the oldest instruments in the World, and one of the most distinctive. If heard alone its shrill tone might tire the listener, but by setting it with the orchestra Unsuk Chin explores its sonorities with a keen dramatic purpose, and challenging the orchestra in its responses. Wu Wei secures a remarkably clear sound from the sheng, with a wide range of tones and effects. The instrument’s longer notes have a plaintive quality, but when short, staccato chords are used through the second half of the piece a powerful rhythmic momentum is generated. The composer writes with flair for the solo instrument, the orchestra replicating the dazzling light of the sheng’s upper register. The music often shimmers on the surface as if emitting a bright, flickering light.
The Piano Concerto (1997) is a more derivative work, perhaps inevitably in such an established medium. Unsuk Chin studied with György Ligeti in Hamburg, and while there are some references to her teacher’s piano-writing the composer that comes to mind most is Messiaen – and Ravel, too, in the whirl of activity. The piano is a free spirit throughout the piece. In the slow movement fluent chord progressions add perfume to the atmosphere, gurgling woodwinds creating the impression of rippling water. The fourth and final section leads off with a lean single note from the left-hand, brilliantly played – as it is throughout – by Sunwook Kim.
The Cello Concerto (2009/13) is the least convincing work of the three, largely on account of its length. Beginning in the middle distance, as though lost in thought, it develops through a first movement where the cello feels at odds with the percussion in particular, though some hefty multiple-stopped passages, superbly realised by Alban Gerhardt, eventually dominate the musical argument. Unsuk Chin does however secure a remarkable pianissimo from the cellist, a long note essentially dying in the wind, before a sudden orchestral eruption will have the listener reaching for the volume control! In such turmoil the first movement ends and the second immediately begins with a gruff cello statement from which the orchestra is seemingly running scared.
Gerhardt makes light of the high-register writing on which the composer concentrates at the start of the third movement, and the cellist’s legato phrases are strikingly beautiful, often tailing away on an upward curve. This is at odds with the hurried statements of the finale, which alternates explosive chords with frenzied bursts of athleticism, as though cello and orchestra are sparring. This dialogue slows to an ultimately peaceful but powerful conclusion, the purity of Gerhard’s tone compromised by shrill clusters from the orchestra, not least rumblings from the double basses.
This release serves as an excellent showcase for the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra, its composer and its conductor. The presentation and annotation is excellent, so too the recorded sound, and the fusion of East and West in Šu is an impressive achievement.