Friday, 26 August 2011

EIF 2011 - Myung-Whun Chung and the Seoul Philharmonic

Not having come across the Seoul Philharmonic before, either on disc or in the concert hall, I did not know what to expect for their Festival debut. However, after hearing them I wonder that they are not better known here, certainly their playing was of a suitably high standard. That said, their programme didn't entirely convince. It opened with Messiaen's Les offrandes oubliees, a very early work and one that feels very early. It does have many hallmarks of the composer's output, such as the overtly religious setting (describing Christ's sacrifice on the cross) and, particularly in the finale, characteristic chords that show an embryonic glimpse of the composer he was to become. The outer movements, and especially the slow finale, were the most effective.

This was followed by Unsuk Chin's Šu, a concerto for sheng and orchestra (the sheng being a traditional seventeen pipe Chinese mouth organ). It is an interesting instrument and it is always good to hear a new and different sound. That said, it is also a comparatively quiet instrument and I'm not convinced that a concerto with full orchestra is quite the right setting for it, though there were some nice touches to the accompaniment, especially in terms of the percussion. As a piece I didn't feel it totally hung together. However, Wu Wei seemed a very talented player, something underscored by his encore which I enjoyed rather more, in part due to its somewhat jazzy feel.

They concluded with Tchaikovsky's 6th symphony. While this was given a generally fine performance, it did not always convince. This was especially true in the opening movement where broad tempi at the outset meant Chung lost momentum. Yet in building to the movement's central climax they did wreak emotional devastation. The third movement was carried off with a similar intensity, with Chung and the orchestra milking it for all it was worth, a wonderful drama to the way the themes passed around the orchestra. The far more than normal smattering of applause that followed seemed to be just what they were aiming for. The problem with going all out like that is it makes it harder to convince that the finale is what should come next, rather than just stopping there. They carried it off fairly well, aided by a rich string sound, though for ultimate impact the brass chorale and the closing bars could have been savoured that bit more. There was some good solo wind playing, especially the rich tone of bassoonist Jung Sun Kwak.

I think Tchaikovsky's 6th is a piece that nothing should come after, and certainly not an encore. They played two. Chung's justification that they didn't want to end their debut on such a sad note didn't really cut it for me: if you don't want to end on a sad note, don't programme Tchaikovsky 6! The Rachmaninov that followed didn't add anything, though they then followed that with a Brahms Hungarian Dance that they played with superb panache.

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