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Unsuk Chin's Akrostichon-Wortspiel

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Unsuk Chin, Akrostichon-Wortspiel and other works, Ensemble Intercontemporain
As noted here last month, Korean composer Unsuk Chin's star is on the rise. Her recent opera, Alice in Wonderland, was a critical success in Munich this summer, and she was honored at the Musica Festival in Strasbourg. The world premiere recording of her first major hit, Akrostichon-Wortspiel, has since come across my desk. Chin began it in 1991, when she was only 30 years old and had only just recently completed a period of studies with György Ligeti. She has said that her music is a reflection of her dreams:
I try to render into music the visions of immense light and of an incredible magnificence of colors that I see in all my dreams, a play of light and colors floating through the room and at the same time forming a fluid sound sculpture.
That is as good an explanation as any for the phantasmagoric wash of sounds we hear in the seven movements of Akrostichon-Wortspiel. Written for stratospheric space soprano and chamber ensemble, the piece draws on texts from Michael Ende's The Never-Ending Story and Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass. While the latter work makes an obvious connection to Chin's Alice opera, the completion of a project that Ligeti had long contemplated, here the words are only the starting point for a wild voyage. This recording excels as it does largely because of the pure, laser-like voice of Finnish soprano Piia Komsi (those qualities reportedly work well in Baroque music, too). There are times that her forays upward merge perfectly with the flute, piccolo, or oboe: is that a wind instrument or Komsi's voice? Sometimes it is hard to tell. Much of the language is harshly dissonant and thick with complex rhythm, and Chin causes for microtonal mistunings of some of the instruments. Even so, in the fifth movement (Domifare S), the work opens into a lushly post-tonal quasi-Romantic style, as if Alice had suddenly fallen into the world of Korngold's Heliane or the realm of Keikobad. More and more this approach appears to be the way forward for modern composers, not to ignore serial techniques and dissonance but not to be enslaved by them either.

The rest of the recording features later pieces by Chin, none of them quite as immediately gripping as Akrostichon-Wortspiel. For five instruments, stretches of Fantasie mécanique sound unfortunately like a warm-up session, complete with the piano appearing to strike tuning notes for the trumpet and trombone. There are more engaging moments that emerge from its managed rigor here and there. Chin takes a turn working with electronics in Xi, a Webernesque exploration of spatialized Doppler-effect sounds, with the Ensemble Intercontemporain interacting with Chin's 12-channel tape. The most recent work is Chin's Double Concerto (for piano and percussion soloists), recorded live during its world premiere at the 2003 Présences Festival. Along with Akrostichon-Wortspiel, its varied palette of sounds -- including an incredible avian passage in the middle section reminiscent of Messiaen -- is what suggests itself for more extended listening on this fascinating disc. The EIC is on a tour of Mexico this month: too bad that they are not able to stop in the U.S. before returning to Paris.

Deutsche Grammophon 00289 477 5118

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