A Disappointing Prize Recital from Jung Soo Yun

United KingdomUnited Kingdom The Richard Tauber Prize: Recital Jung Soo Yun (tenor); Joseph Middleton (piano). Wigmore Hall, London, 15.7.2013 (CC)

Schubert Die schöne Müllerin – No. 3, Halt!; No. 5, Am Feierabend: No. 17, Die böse Farbe
R. Strauss 8 Gedichte aus Letzte Blätter, Op. 10
Tosti Non t’amo più; Ideale; L’alba separa dalla luce l’ombra
Anonymous Two Korean Art Songs: Never forget you; Sailor’s Song
Gounod Faust: Salut! Demeure chaste et pure
Tchaikovsky Eugene Onegin: Lensky’s Aria

Two prize winners for the price of one ticket here. South Korean tenor, Jung Soo Yun won the 2010 Richard Tauber Prize for singers, and part of the prize along with £5k was this recital. His career, to go by his upcoming engagements, looks set to take off: Autumn 2013 finds him in Covent Garden’s Les Vêpres siciliennes, and on to Macduff (Macbeth) for Opera North next Spring. The pianist, Joseph Middleton, won the 2010 Ferdinand Rauter Memorial Prize for Accompanists as part of the same competition (which is held, incidentally, at the Wigmore).

There seemed a distinct mismatch between the two performers in the Müllerin excerpts. Middleton was beautifully musical, never over-pedalling, never overbearing, each phrase, gesture or accompaniment pattern carefully considered and weighted. Yun, in contrast, was decidedly bleaty to the point that the vibrato threatened the note itself. The tempo for the impetuous ‘Am Feierabend’ was well chosen but the delivered goods were ultimately unremarkable from every angle, while the final ‘Die böse Farbe’ seemed a perfect reflection of the first song: an excellent pianist juxtaposed with a frankly irritating tenor exhibiting forced tone and precious little identification with Schubert.

The Gedichte, Op. 10 of Richard Strauss begins with one of that composer’s most famous songs, ‘Zueignung’. Perhaps it’s unfair to mention that Jessye Norman, live, in this song was unparalleled in my experience, but the comparison is as inevitable as it is steamrollering. Readers may well be familiar with Norman’s recording with Masur: if so, Yun was at pretty much the opposite end of the spectrum, resulting in the song becoming a pronounced meander, a tedious shadow of its great self. True, one could point to Yun’s firm low register (no bad thing in a tenor). A shame the pianist showed his fallibility in the tricky ‘Nichts’ that followed; in contrast, Yun somehow raised his game actually to sound fairly Straussian. The later ‘Geduld’ was the highlight of the set, with Middleton finding a sleazy, bluesy aspect to the piano’s contribution. This song is, in its own way, a mini tone poem, and here Yun and Middleton managed to prolong the atmosphere effectively. A pity the set was rounded off by an ‘Allerseelen’ which missed out on the song’s intrinsic ecstasy.

The Tosti songs that opened the second part of the recital marked a link to territory where Yun is clearly more relaxed. ‘Non t’amo più’ demonstrated fine breath control over long phrases – unfortunately as the song moved towards its climax that vibrato became intrusive again. One had to admire the ravishing piano playing in ‘Ideale’. Middleton set up the atmosphere perfectly in the space of but a few bars; and ‘L’alba separa dalla luce l’ombra’ was nicely impassioned.

If the Tosti moved Yun closer to home, metaphorically he arrived there with the two lovely Korean Art Songs. If the occasional Caruso croak found its way into ‘Never forget you’, at least there was plenty of fun in the ‘Sailor’s Song’ (complete with rowing gestures).

It is always brave to bring out full operatic arias in piano reductions in a chamber venue. The Gounod really did not work with piano, and it took real effort to achieve any sense of rapture at all. Better was the flowing Lensky’s aria from Onegin, but again Yun was outshone by his pianist.

One can hear Yun’s reading of the Gounod on You Tube, both here, and more remarkably here (with a rather strange moment when he turns away from the audience to make some sort of dramatic point, or to gather himself, I know not which). Whether you want to is another matter entirely.

Colin Clarke