Korean Songs

Wookyung Kim (tenor), Hee-Jin Lee (piano) (Michael Storrs Music CD; MSM 007)

19 July 2008 3.5 stars

My Fair Lady: Naxos MusicalsOne of the most promising singers of his generation, the young South Korean tenor Wookyung Kim already has an impressive track record. After training in his native Seoul and undertaking further study in Munich, Kim went on to win prizes in the Belvedere Competition in Vienna, the Francisco Viñas Competition in Barcelona and Domingo's Operalia competition in Los Angeles. Since then, he has appeared in operas at Dresden (where he was a member of the ensemble), Berlin, Hamburg and Bordeaux, gaining further prominence after singing the Duke in Rigoletto at Covent Garden last summer and Alfredo in La traviata at the Met in January 2007.

My feelings on his performance in that Rigoletto were divided between being impressed by the quality of his voice and less enthralled by his reticence as a stage actor. Confirming my suspicion at the time that the recording studio is his natural home, this debut album shows off the full range of his vocal abilities – in particular a natural, unforced lyricism and a powerful top.

It's just a shame that the material isn't a bit more substantial. The disc (the subject of our current competition) consists of thirteen tracks of Korean Songs, most of which are pastiches of nineteenth-century German Lieder written during the last fifty years or so. The liner booklet is shy of telling us more about the compositions or their composers in anything other than Korean, and we have only the English translations of the songs themselves to go off for understanding the pieces.

However, the high quality of the singing far outweighs one's reservations about the music itself. The opening track, 'Visage', sets the scene for much of what is to come. Kim's impressive control of the line and his use of dynamic contrasts helps to colour the rather melancholy minor-key song. Chromatic movement in the bass line and poignant diminished chords stimulate interest in 'The Pure White Snow', which again finds Kim in strong voice. The accompanist, Hee-Jin Lee, comes into her own in 'Bellflower', which is of a merrier character and features dotted rhythms and attractive leaps in the piano part; Kim, too, seems to enjoy the jollity of the melodic line.

For my taste, the 'Boat Song' is a bit too twee and primal in character, with its interjections by Bo-Sung Kim on Korean Drum and an inclination to unfocussed vocal outbursts from the tenor himself, but 'An Ode for My Hometown' is lovely: a flowing left-hand part is contrasted with sparkling high notes in the right hand, while Kim is at his best here, his full tone and accurate pitching truly impressive. 'Unforgettable' also catches one's attention, the impassioned vocal performance notable for its control in the low-lying passages. The setting of Psalm 23 could do to rely a little less constantly on the subdominant region and some of the other songs are no more than simple, but as a vehicle for an interesting young singer's talents this disc is well worth exploring. Later in the year, Kim returns to more familiar territory with a disc of arias from operas based on the works of Hugo, Schiller and Goethe, the composers including Verdi, Donizetti, Rossini, Thomas, Massenet and Gounod: one to look out for.

By Dominic McHugh

Wookyung Kim's CD of Korean Songs is the subject of our new competition. 20 copies of the disc are up for grabs if you answer a simple question. Visit the competition page for details.