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20/21 Chin: Akrostichon-wortspiel, Etc / Intercontemporain

Release Date: 03/08/2005 
Label:  Deutsche Grammophon   Catalog #: 000404402   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Unsuk Chin
Performer:  Pia KomsiSamuel FavreDimitrios Vassilakis
Conductor:  Kazushi OnoPatrick DavinStefan AsburyDavid Robertson
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Ensemble InterContemporain
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 12 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

Unsuk Chin (b. 1961) is a Korean composer who’s gained a good deal of recognition recently. Originally having emigrated to Germany to study with György Ligeti, she won the prestigious (and lucrative) Grawemeyer Prize for her Violin Concerto in 2004. This disc doesn’t include that work, but does give an overview of four works covering a decade. The music falls into two halves, one well crafted but a bit generic, the other more original and perhaps portending more interesting things to come. First, the lesser pair. Fantasie mécanique (1994, rev. 1997) is written for a quintet of trumpet, trombone, piano, and two percussion. It’s full of energy, striking rhythms and colors, and yet it feels a bit generic. One hears strong echoes of Read more teacher Ligeti, not surprisingly. The 2002 Double Concerto for prepared piano and percussion is a far more accomplished, ambitious, and original piece, in that the blend of the two soloists seems to trigger a special spectrum of sonorities in response from the chamber orchestra accompaniment; my only problem is that at a certain point its torrent of notes starts to seem forced, and the work feels like it’s going on too long.

But then two other pieces show special gifts that suggest a more original sensibility. Xi (1997–98), for large ensemble and electroacoustic part, should be a cliché: it begins with dark electronic sounds joined gradually by acoustic instruments in a sort of deep respiration. It’s a gesture that’s been done many, many times before, but somehow I found Chin’s sensitivity to the blend of electronic and acoustic to be exceptional, and her pacing of the work’s growth compelling. The piece feels like the sound of the earth itself breathing (or perhaps some dragon slumbering beneath the surface).

Akrostichon-Wortspiel (1991–93) is a setting of excerpts from Lewis Carroll and Michael Ende, the texts being fragmented and distorted to the point that semantic meaning is lost, and some sort of distilled essence remains. It’s overall quite successful—this is a sort of fairy-tale Pierrot Lunaire. Piia Komsi (whom I heard on another work reviewed in this issue, Wing on Wing of Esa-Pekka Salonen) is spectacular, with her negotiation of a horrendously difficult part that she manages not only to finesse, but to turn into a dramatic star turn, moving effortlessly from the whispered scratchiness of an old crone-witch to full-blooded Mahlerian lyricism. The music shows similar range, and isn’t afraid to introduce real thematic materials and harmonic centers when Chin feels it justified. This is the work that first brought her to prominent attention, and that recognition is deserved on its basis.

The attention to color and sonority, evidenced throughout, but especially in the last two pieces, suggests where Chin’s greatest strengths may lie. Like many non-Western composers approaching Western practice, she employs timbre as a natural and neutral entry. To my ear, there’s also a healthy dose of “spectralism” at work, the technique of basing harmonies on overtone relations that has become an increasingly common practice in Europe since the 1970s. And that again is a more abstract and “universal” musical quality that can be approached independent of more specific stylistic markers. Chin also has great dramatic flair. Not only is the electroacoustic realm one that comes naturally to her, but I for one would love to see what she could do with opera.

These performances are stunning, and beautifully recorded. This is the fruit of several different recording occasions, some of them live concert, yet the production standards are so good, and the level of the playing so dead-on, that it doesn’t matter whether or not this is a studio product. A composer simply cannot be better served by such players, conductors, and engineers.

Robert Carl, FANFARE
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Works on This Recording

Akrostichon-Wortspiel by Unsuk Chin
Performer:  Pia Komsi (Soprano)
Conductor:  Kazushi Ono
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Ensemble InterContemporain
Period: 20th Century 
Date of Recording: 02/2004 
Venue:  Live  Great Hall, Music City, Paris, France 
Length: 15 Minutes 48 Secs. 
Language: German 
Notes: Composition written: 1991 - 1993. 
Fantaisie méchanique by Unsuk Chin
Conductor:  Patrick Davin
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Ensemble InterContemporain
Period: 20th Century 
Date of Recording: 04/2004 
Venue:  Radio France Studios, Paris 
Length: 12 Minutes 37 Secs. 
Concerto for Piano and Percussion "Doppelkonzert" by Unsuk Chin
Performer:  Samuel Favre (Percussion), Dimitrios Vassilakis (Piano)
Conductor:  Stefan Asbury
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Ensemble InterContemporain
Period: 20th Century 
Date of Recording: 02/2003 
Venue:  Live  Radio France Studios, Paris 
Length: 20 Minutes 39 Secs. 
XI by Unsuk Chin
Conductor:  David Robertson
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Ensemble InterContemporain
Period: 20th Century 
Date of Recording: 02/1999 
Venue:  Live  Great Hall, Music City, Paris, France 
Length: 22 Minutes 48 Secs. 

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