Since the Korean War ended, that country's close ties with America led the way to an economic miracle and the infusion of Western culture. Nyung-Whun Chung, who began as a piano virtuoso and member of the Chung trio with his equally famous sister, the violinist Kyung-Wha Chung, stands at the top of the country's musical elite. With a prominent career in Paris and abroad, he has nothing to prove. But Asian orchestras still do, and with DG's decision to record the Seoul Philharmonic comes a stamp of approval form the eminent record label. Or are they cashing in on the Asian market because of the financial success of Chinese superstar pianists like Lang Lang and Yundi, who both began their recording careers on DG?
This CD of French orchestral favorites doesn't decisively answer the question for me. A top caliber orchestra requires that the home country produce conservatory graduates across the spectrum, a hard thing to accomplish. I have no idea how Seoul's music schools are doing, but the Seoul Phil. doesn't play with distinction here, and despite Chung's reputation, his interpretations skirt the cautious at times. Perhaps he takes the first movement of La mer so deliberately, with such a lack of lightness and atmosphere, to make a point. If so, it doesn't register. This performance simply sounds dull, and in the case of the woodwinds, often tentative. (Japan's NHK orchestra could probably do just as well, and probably's the Osaka Phil.) I can't complain about ensemble, but where an ideal La mer is mysterious and foreboding in the opening of the third movement, this one is blunt, without any kind of evocation.
The four numbers from Ravel's ballet, Ma mere l'Oye, also suffer form a lack of delicacy and refinement. The players put one foot in front of the other, which isn't enough. Perhaps Chung is trying to get more; one hopes so. This score is a touchstone for dreamlike orchestration and transparent textures. Overall, the reading comes off more successfully than the Debussy, because it is simpler music without much variety of tone. La valse opens with care rather than panache, but Chung certainly knows how to convey the hallucinatory waltz rhythms and the slide into chaos and disintegration. DG's engineering takes us into the detailed fabric of the haunting orchestration with excellent sound throughout. the only limitation is that the orchestra's caliber doesn't nearly rise to the level of any of the great orchestras, from Boston to Vienna, who have made ravishing recordings of this score.
Over the years I notice that the grumpiest comments fly when I criticize an orchestra for being less than ideal. I am informed that prejudice, snobbery, deafness, and stupidity disqualify me from hearing that a provincial German radio orchestra isn't the equal of the Berlin Phil. that may happen here, too, but I still think that this CD will appeal largely to Korean and other Asian buyers.