Grieg: Complete Symphonic Works, Volume II—From Holberg’s Time; Two Elegiac Melodies, Op. 34; Two Melodies, Op. 53; Two Nordic Melodies, Op. 63. WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln conducted by Eivind Aadland. Audite. $19.99 (SACD).
Piano Music from Korea: Works of Younghi Pagh-Paan, Isang Yun, Sukhi Kang, Uzong Chae and Chung Gil Kim. Klara Min, piano. Naxos. $9.99.
Anyone who thinks that classical music is “difficult” for the listener ought to listen to the second volume in Audite’s cycle of Grieg’s complete symphonic works, conducted by Eivind Aadland, to be disabused of the notion. This SACD of music for string orchestra is almost too easy to listen to – it soothes, meanders and often delights, but it never really challenges. The Holberg Suite (more formally called From Holberg’s Time) is the best-known work here and is exceptionally well played. This is a piece that even amateur and school orchestras occasionally perform, but never like this: the strings of the WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln are simply gorgeous, their attacks precise, Aadland’s pacing just right, and the overall effect excellent in every way. The other works on the disc, though, are of less interest. They are Grieg’s string-orchestra arrangements of some of his songs, and they draw heavily on Norwegian folk tunes and dance rhythms, which Aadland explores quite effectively through his rhythmic emphases, decisions on when to use or not use vibrato, and other techniques. The music, though, is pretty, certainly not profound, sounding more like a series of salon pieces than anything else. Not that there is anything wrong with salon music – but it would have been nice to include something meatier as a contrast. True, the Holberg Suite is a contrast of sorts, but that is because its style is not really that of Grieg himself (as the composer noted): this is a “suite in the old style.” Beautiful playing and elegant interpretations are the hallmark of this disc – Aadland is a really excellent advocate for Grieg – but seekers of the substantive will have to look elsewhere.
They might, for example, look to Klara Min’s very well-played CD of Korean piano music – but here there is an opposite issue, for most of these works are so meaty as to be positively gristly. It is not that they are modern, although they are – it is that their modernity is of a certain type, with works constructed and organized according to compositional principles that do not readily reach out to listeners. The Piano Sketches (1966) by Sukhi Kang (born 1934), for example, are clearly challenging and likely appealing to play, but a listener will hear quick changes of dynamics, note clusters and rhythms varying from the precise to the varied – with little to hold onto aurally. At the opposite extreme here, and considerably more successful from a listener’s point of view, is Pa-mun (“Ripples on Water”) (1971) by Younghi Pagh-Paan (born 1945) – a modern but impressionistic portrayal of the effect of throwing small stones into a quiet lake. Listeners need not know what is being represented in order to be captivated by the slow tempo, gradually changing dynamics, and overall gentleness of the work – interspersed with occasional sound bursts. Three preludes by Uzong Chae (born 1968), written in 2003 and 2004, are well-made pieces that do not really reach out to listeners. An analysis of their note groupings and use of polyphony may be of interest to musicians and of value to performers, but any emotional connection to an audience is largely absent. Such a connection would be expected in Go-Poong (“Memory of Childhood”) (1982) by Chung Gil Kim (born 1934), three of whose four movements are given here; but this is no Kinderszenen or Children’s Corner Suite. Using Korean folk and traditional melodies, the composer builds up a series of melodic impressions that may well reflect his own childhood but that do not reach across cultures very well – although some elements, such as the short second movement (“Namakshin”), are more effective than others. The one composer here represented by two works is Isang Yun (1917-1995). His early Fünf Stücke (1958) are wholly conventional for their time, being short, atonal works of little import. Interludium A (1982), also atonal, is more interesting (and twice as long as the five earlier pieces combined). Here there are clear sectional divisions and a free flow of ideas that even includes a tonal center for a central slow portion. This is an intriguing work, perhaps easier to admire than to enjoy, and Min plays it as well as she performs all the pieces here – which is to say, very well indeed. This is nevertheless a special-interest CD rather than one with broad appeal.