Joseph Haydn/Isang Yun: Farewell (ECM New Series 2029)


Joseph Haydn
Isang Yun

Münchener Kammerorchester
Alexander Liebreich conductor
Recorded May 2007, Himmelfahrtskirche, München
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Alexander Liebreich takes Christoph Poppen’s coveted position as director of the Munich Chamber Orchestra in this flagship recording for ECM. Say what you will about pairing the sound-worlds of Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) and Isang Yun (1917-1995). The results on this disc are nothing short of breathtaking, for when the first movement of Haydn’s Symphony No. 39 in g minor (1765) for two oboes, four horns and strings spreads its majestic wings we cannot help but be swept away in the current. Liebreich enhances the dynamics for which the Munichers are so well known, nuancing the hunting horns with especial verve and panache. The dancing Andante evokes an exchange of partners beneath starry chandeliers, hands joining and separating in joyful twirls. Yet this joy is also quiet, respectful of the larger social body in which it figures. Unwavering from its careful, obedient purpose, it moves headlong into the Menuet, prancing its way with steps careful and true into a vigorous finale. Here the buzzing of strings hurtles us into a dream of conquest and victory. It is the kind of music that makes one want to conduct, to be the rhythmic and emotional fulcrum of something grand.

The 1772 Symphony No. 45 in f-sharp minor (known as the “Farewell” Symphony, as its performers are instructed to leave the stage upon its completion) for two oboes, two horns and strings opens with a delicately energetic Allegro. Interlaced harmonies from horns add a warm undertone to the frosty strings. The especially somber Adagio goes along languidly, even as the double basses surge slowly upward, unknowing of the delightful Menuet soon to overtake them. By the finale, a sense of dramaturgy prevails that is anything but hackneyed. This blends into a wonderful Adagio, which ends the piece on a surprisingly with just a violin and a few lingering winds.

All of which seems but a friendly preamble to the language of Yun’s Chamber Symphony I (1987). Scored for the same forces as Haydn’s 45th, its brush-fine detail in the wind writing calls to us from a different context entirely. The oboes embody an elegiac torturedness, seeming to sing and speak simultaneously. A planet colliding, the music ejects chunks of varying size, careening off into unknown reaches of outer space. This is not to imply that the music is destructive, but rather generative, full of creation and stirrings of spiritual awareness. The dialogic relationships among the instruments are superbly rendered, both in score and in performance. Liebreich ensures that the strings always move in arcs, scooping rather than carving their motivic soils into buckets of unity. Each section of the orchestra moves independently, but at the whim of a greater purpose that cannot be musically defined. Despite the complexities involved, this music is full of open spaces and winged phrasings. With each new section, the magnification of the microscope increases, such that we begin with an amorphous mass but end in a field teeming with microbes.

The performances here are superbly balanced and recorded, and prove once again that ECM is at the forefront of classical engineering and programming.

Haydn: The Seven Words (ECM New Series 1756)

Joseph Haydn
The Seven Words

Rosamunde Quartett
Andreas Reiner violin
Simon Fordham violin
Helmut Nicolai viola
Anja Lechner cello
Recorded May 2000, Festeburgkirche, Frankfurt am Main
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

What a paradox it is that the trappings of language should bring us so much spiritual power whereby our actions speak not only louder than words, but in place of them. Speech can only be a stepping-stone, replacing our imagination with temporary idols. Rather, the breath of life inside language is itself the awe we seek. Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) offers another possibility: that the divine word is pure sound. The Seven Last Words of Our Savior on the Cross is his crowning achievement in this regard, and transcends all possible semantic constraints. Prefaced by an introduction and ending with an earthquake, at its center beat seven hearts in sonata form:

Sonata I
“Pater, dimitte illis, quia nesciunt, quid faciunt”
(“Father, forgive them, they know not what they do”), B flat, Largo

Sonata II
“Hodie mecum eris in Paradiso”
(“This day thou shalt be with me in Paradise”), C minor, Grave e cantabile, ending in C major

Sonata III
“Mulier, ecce filius tuus”
(“Woman, behold thy son”), E major, Grave

Sonata IV
“Deus meus, Deus meus, utquid dereliquisti me”
(“My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?”), F minor, Largo

Sonata V
(“I thirst”), A major, Adagio

Sonata VI
“Consummatum est”
(“It is finished”), G minor, Lento, ending in G major

Sonata VII
“In manus tuas, Domine, commendo spiritum meum”
(“Into thine hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit”), E flat, Largo

Though originally written for orchestra, and in a state of religious fervor, the string quartet redaction performed here (it also exists as an oratorio and in a version for solo clavier), though questionably sanctioned by the composer, brings forth the music’s intention all the more vividly. Most scores will have the Latin texts directly beneath the first violin line, lest their efficacy fade in the absence of human voices, which makes the Rosamunde Quartett’s performance all the more astonishing for its enunciative clarity, an inward sense of tempo and nuance that seems to breathe through every instrument.

The opening proclamation is a wakeup call. While not especially dense, it nevertheless pulls us like a hooked fish. Its tight harmonies reveal a more porous foundation by which the benefits of language are weighed against its sins. We are swept past our conjectures with intense forward motion into a world of sound where Classical charm and Baroque pensiveness walk hand in hand. The violin strings the others like beads on a rosary. Through an almost serpentine motif and multivalent gentility, it exposes the folly of human ways by the light of retribution. We pause on the occasional neutral resolution before soaring into more rhythmically staggered interiors. In the Third Word, we encounter imbalanced key changes, thereby establishing the corpus of the piece as though a cocoon were unwinding itself into a path to the more urgent Fifth. By the time we take our final footsteps, treading carefully over muted strings, we lose ourselves in the trembling earth.