Myung Whun Chung: Piano (CD review)

Myung Whun Chung, piano. ECM New Series 2342 481 0765.

While many of us think of Myung Whun Chung foremost as a South Korean conductor, working in recent years with the Asia Philharmonic Orchestra, the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra, and the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra, we may forget that he is also a pianist. Even Chung recognizes this fact, admitting in a booklet note that "although I don't consider myself a 'real' pianist anymore, the idea that my grandchildren would be able to hear this music from my heart was very appealing." So what we have on this album, simply titled Piano, is a collection of Chung's favorite piano works, dedicated to his children and grandchildren, most of the pieces having a direct connection to Chung's own experience. The selections are all quite familiar, but Chung presents them in a most-heartfelt manner. "This record," he says, "is my personal musical thanks to all who share my love for the wonderful music."

As with so many collections, the first item on the program sets the tone for what's to follow. In this case, Chung has chosen Claude Debussy's Clair de lune, that gossamer-light impressionistic work we've all heard so many times. Chung plays it in a simple, straightforward manner, yet he clearly wears his heart on his sleeve, playing it slowly and with great feeling. Still, while Chung is unafraid to let his emotions show, he never actually sentimentalizes the music but allows its overt Romanticism to speak for itself. It's quite lovely.

Next up Frederic Chopin's Nocturne in D-flat major, Op. 27/2, and again we hear the same charming simplicity from Chung, the music flowing in a sincere, deeply felt stream of notes, with absolutely nothing showy, exaggerated, or idiosyncratically mannered.

And so it goes. Beethoven's Fur Elise is appealingly intimate and moving, all the while never lagging. Tchaikovsky's Autumn Song, "October" in the cycle of piano pieces the composer called The Seasons, sounds most poignant, a touch of melancholy bringing to mind the end of an old year and the coming of winter. Schubert's Impromptu in E-flat major shows Chung in another, more-virtuosic light, proving he is, indeed, a 'real' pianist, whether he likes it or not. His fingers dance over the keyboard, displaying a brilliant dexterity for one who has apparently given up the piano for conducting.

One of the highlights of the program for me was Schumann's Traumerei ("Dreaming") from his set of piano pieces Kinderszenen ("Scenes of Childhood"). Like his rendition of Clair de Lune, Chung's Traumerei is gentle and sweet, a genuinely hushed dream. Following that we get a second work from Schumann: Arabeske, a much more-colorful piece of music in which Chung commands a good variety of emotions.

The disc winds down with a second Impromptu from Schubert, this one in G-flat major, a "song without words." Chung gives the piece a voice, strong and tender. Then, it's another of Chopin's Nocturnes, this one in C-sharp minor, with Chung well catching its shifting moods. Finally, the program ends with Mozart's variations on "Ah! vois dirai-je, Maman," a French children's song we probably know better as "Twinkle, twinkle little star." It is undoubtedly Chung's reminder to us that he dedicated the album to his children and grandchildren. Chung has a good deal of fun with it, and the music brings the program to a delightful conclusion.

I don't think anyone, least of all Chung (who seems from his writing a most modest and humble gentleman), would consider these interpretation definitive. But they are forthright and honest and certainly pleasurable. In addition, as with most of ECM's products, the disc and case come enclosed in a light-cardboard slipcover. What more can one ask for?

ECM recorded the music in July 2013 at Teatro La Fenice, Venice, Italy. The engineers caught the audio in a warmly ambient environment that greatly flatters the music. Although the piano sounds well detailed and fairly dynamic, it is also warm and cozy, miked at a moderate distance for an easy, natural, realistic listening experience.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on the Big Jon and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa