There is a strong South Korean presence at this year’s City of London Festival, and not just in terms of Samsung’s sponsorship of this concert. The four soloists are all Korean, so too the conductor, and the Korean community was out in force, swelling the capacity audience.
Myung-Whun Chung is one of the few musicians to have been allowed into North Korea, and his conducting career, which he is now winding down, is these days directed to opening out this secretive state. Chung doesn’t doubt that reconciliation will come about somehow, but for now it seems Beethoven’s divine sparks have yet to enlighten the Dear Leader and his regime – in spite of a performance of the ‘Choral’ Symphony that celebrated Beethoven’s vision loud if not terribly clear.
The Cathedral’s wallowing acoustic, though, isn’t really the point – however much it tests one’s patience; the building plays its part in keeping the mercury of aspiration rising. The elemental chaos of the opening heaved itself out of the dark with momentary clarity, but thereafter detail went for little, very much at the expense of overall effect – and it was this that Chung, a considerable Beethovenian during his career both as pianist and conductor – had the measure of, in his sustaining control of the music’s energy and its identity every bit as religious as the venue.
Beethoven’s needle-sharp orchestration in the scherzo may have gone by in a blur, but Chung initiated a slow-burn intensity in the Adagio from a notably serene opening to its powerful anticipation of greater things to come that fed into the fnale. Here Jongmin Park’s “O Freunde…” was electrifying, a fine realisation of the effect that Beethoven had in mind, continued in similar style by Yosep Kang’s urgent tenor solo. With the quartet completed by Kathleen Kim’s effortless, soaring soprano and Songmi Yang’s lustrous mezzo, you were again reminded of the high calibre of Korea’ musicians. The London Symphony Chorus, singing from memory, made the fierce demands of the ‘Ode to Joy’ ring high into the dome, and even if the LSO’s customary brilliance of sound was compromised, the Symphony’s impact remained undimmed.