These recordings were originally released in Deutsche Grammophone's "20/21" line of contemporary music recordings, but after DG deleted most of its contemporary repertoire, Kairos has reissued them. Still, Kairos is pricey, and as I write this there are plenty of discount and used copies of the older edition for sale.
In any event, we have here four pieces by Korean composer Unsuk Chin including her breakthrough piece, the oft-performed "Akrostichon-Wortspiel". All are world-premiere recordings, performed by the Ensemble Intercontemporain, each piece featuring a different conductor. The performers in the spotlight are the soprano Piia Komsi, the percussionist Samuel Favre, and the pianist Dimitri Vassilakis.
Unsuk Chin studied in the late 1980s with Gyorgy Ligeti, and the influence of the "later Ligeti" is very clear in her compositions. Chin's music preserves the same sense of whimsy as Ligeti in his "Nonsense Madrigals", and the same fascination with polyrhythms as the Hungarian composer's "Piano Concerto" and other late works (I should add that Chin has also written a little collection of fine piano etudes like Ligeti). Chin also displays a use of colour reminiscent of the best of Messiaen's oeuvre. Nonetheless, her music shows great originality. She continually subverts Western traditions of composition. For her, the sounds usually produced by a European orchestra are "simply a 19th-century institution", and she seeks to approach non-European musical cultures through the European ensemble. Chin also has a fascination with the possibilities of electronics, brilliantly explored in the third piece here.
"Akrostichon-Wortspiel" for soprano and orchestra (1991/1993) purports to be seven scenes from children's books, but the passages selected--from Ende's "Never-ending Story" and Carroll's "Through the Looking-Glass"--are dissected until they remain a mere bundle of syllables. The writing for soprano is characterised by sudden changes of pitch, with the vocalist frequently dropping straight from a high note to menacing whispers. This must be one of the most difficult pieces for soprano in contemporary repertoire, and Piia Komsi shows here an agility of voice I didn't even think was possible. The range of sounds provided by the ensemble is extended by microtonal writing in which some of the instruments are retuned by a quarter-tone or a sixth-tone. So much of contemporary music, as artistically daring and insightful as it might be, is quite dry, but "Akrostichon-Wortspiel" is a truly fun work. The sixth section, "Das Beliebigkeitsspiel" with its alphabetic games, is especially delightful. This is a live recording from Radio France, and there is some background noise in the beginning, but generally the sound is satisfying.
"Fantasie mecanique" for five instrumentalists (1994, rev. 1997) is a rigorously constructed piece that attempts to give the impression of improvisation. The opening introduces a sequence of four notes in the lowest register of the instruments, which is in a sense the foundation of the work, and which returns after a succession of three variations, three strophes, and two sections which emphasis the piece's mechanical side. Seven different metres are used among the instrumentalists, which are interwoven at the apex of the piece.
"Xi" for ensemble and electronics (1998) takes its title from the Korean work for the smallest unit of things. The piece is in five sections. It begins with the sound of breathing taken from an instrumental sound, and over the first four sections more and more real instrumental sounds are provided until the chromatic total is reached and heavily altered with electronics. At the end, the sound of breathing returns and the piece comes to an end in a cyclical manner. It took me some time to understand "Xi", but in the end I think it is a enjoyable work, and can stand along other successful electronic works such as Ligeti's "Artikulation" and Gubaidulina's "Vivente - Non Vivente".
The "Double Concerto" for prepared piano, percussion, and ensemble (2002) is the latest of the pieces here. The piano is prepared so that it is somewhat muted in the middle register, but left percussive elsewhere, so that contrast is created among parts of the instrument's range. The orchestra is left far in the background, providing impulses that are then taken over by the soloists, and then taking ideas over from the soloists in a spectral manner. This piece sparkles with colour more than the other two purely instrumental works here, and is beautiful listening.
The liner notes give a short biography of Chin and an analysis of the four works here, as well as profiles of the performers and conductors. My only real concern with DG's presentation of the pieces is that although the latter three works are made up of multiple sections, they are each placed on a single track, but this may be what the composer desired. All in all, this is an entertaining disc. After listening to it over the last several years, hearing three of her Etudes performed by a Chicago Symphony Orchestra pianist, and buying the Analekta recording of her Grawemeyer-award winning Violin Concerto, I believe Unsuk Chin is one of the most promising contemporary composers.