Edinburgh International Festival 2011 (10) – Messiaen, Chin and Tchaikovsky with the Seoul Philharmonic

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Chin and Tchaikovsky : Wu Wei (sheng) Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra, Myung-Whun Chung (conductor). Usher Hall, 24.8.2011. (SRT)

Messiaen: Les offrandes oubliées
Symphony No. 6, “Pathétique”

Myung-Wun Chung

Myung-Whun Chung has long been familiar to festival audiences – I still have strong memories of an outstanding Verdi Requiem he conducted with the Swedish RSO in 1999 – but this was the first time his Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra had played here. In keeping with this year’s Asian theme, they brought a fascinating Korean work by Unsuk Chin, effectively a concerto for orchestra and sheng. The sheng is a traditional Korean instrument, normally used for accompaniment rather than solos, played by both blowing and sucking into a mouthpiece. Its sound is similar to a mouth-organ but more sophisticated; to my ears it carries some undertones of both the trumpet and flute. Wu Wei has made a name for himself in Korea as a sheng virtuoso and while it’s undoubtedly a strange instrument to western ears I found it weirdly alluring. It has a very odd resonance that caught the Usher Hall acoustic brilliantly, but its sound seemed to be entirely detached from the instrument and the musician playing it, seeming to come from an indefinable space.

Chin’s writing consisted mostly of percussive orchestral chords with lots of string glissandi and sometimes abrasive brass. The orchestral winds were sometimes used to enrich the sound of the sheng and were sometimes set against it. Atmospheric as the piece was, to my ears it was too heavily reliant on the percussion section – at times almost exclusively so – and it would have been fascinating to hear a wider palette of orchestral textures brought into play. In fact, by far the most effective moments were towards the end when the shen played quietly against a mysterious pair of off-stage violins, gently fading into nothing. Wei treated us to an incredibly virtuosic solo sheng encore afterwards, something so impressive as to threaten to erase memories of Šu itself.

In Messiaen’s Offrandes oubliées the orchestra set out their stall in more recognisably western terms. Messiaen’s highly condensed Catholic vision began with a rounded theme for the strings, and this showcased the orchestra’s greatest asset: their incredibly rich, fulsome string tone. This immediately made me sit up and take notice and they swelled into Messiaen’s theme like the wind filling the sails of a ship. After the brash orchestral tutti, depicting mankind’s headlong descent into sin, the magnificent string playing was showcased again, this time with reduced scoring that sounded from the orchestra with chamber-like clarity. Perhaps it was to show off these Rolls-Royce strings that the orchestra chose their two encores at the end, Rachmaninov’s Vocalise and Brahms’ First Hungarian Dance.

That glorious string tone also came into its own for an outstanding performance of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique Symphony, investing the main themes of both the first movement and finale with such resonant passion as to make them heartbreaking. Chung himself, a statuesque presence on the podium (and conducting without a score for both the Tchaikovsky and Messiaen), showed that rare gift of being able to bend an orchestra completely to his will with only the smallest of gestures. His tempi were on the slow side and this helped to reinforce the sense of majesty in this symphony that is often lost in other readings. There were times when he distended the tempi rather distractingly, and the orchestra lacked some precision in the climactic ensembles of the first movement, but the moments where Chung deliberately slowed down the action – such as the hair-raising string climax at the end of the first movement development – served only to increase the dramatic impetus exponentially. He kept a lid on the march until the great tutti passage began, and even when the orchestral fireworks went off his control made it stately rather than showy, contributing all the more powerfully to the work’s overall impact. A Korean journalist that I got talking to in the interval of the concert told me that Tchaikovsky’s music was exceptionally popular in Korea. When it’s played like this, I can see why.

The Edinburgh International Festival runs until 4th September in a range of venues across the city. A selection of performances will be reviewed in these pages.

Simon Thompson