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Monday, June 4, 2012

Review: Jason Vieaux & Jung Eun Oh

Jason Vieaux & Jung Eun Oh
4:00 pm—June 3, 2012
Mixon Hall, Cleveland Institute of Music

It’s become a Guitar Weekend tradition that a Jason Vieaux performance closes out the entire festival. This puts pressure on him. First, he often performs in the greater Cleveland area. So designing a program that’s fresh to an audience already familiar with him takes some planning and adds to his already daunting practice schedule. Further, as the anchor leg of the weekend, Vieaux follows three recital by artists who, inspired by the presence of their fellow artists, make a point of hitting it out of the park. Certainly all three performers did so this time around. Add to that an audience with an appetite whetted by what’s gone before, and you begin to understand why musicians spend so much time in the practice room.

As anyone who’s followed his career knows, Vieaux is up to the challenge. The centerpiece of his concert was the Britten Nocturnal. This is a piece he’s learned fairly recently, but now he has a handful of public performances under his belt. I first heard him perform this in September of last year—it was, I think, his first performance of the Nocturnal. His performance yesterday sounded more lived in, with a heightened eeriness that suits the piece. I’ve long felt that the Nocturnal isn’t quite music, but rather an aural description of somewhere alien and disquieting. After yesterday’s performance, Vieaux noted that the Nocturnal always takes him to another place. “I can be sitting backstage talking about baseball, but when I begin playing the Nocturnal, it just takes over.” Intriguingly, Vieaux compared the Nocturnal to a Mozart sonata: “Every note counts. It’s a very tight piece.”

For the rest of the concert, I must admit to a personal bias. Vieaux and soprano Jung Eun Oh performed both Britten’s folksong arrangements for guitar and voice, and also his Songs of the Chinese. To my ears at least, the shadows of Julian Bream and Peter Pears hung heavy over the concert. Mind you, I’m no fan of the notion of definitive performances, whereby all subsequent performances must inevitably fall short. But the 1965 recording by Bream and Pears is a special case, and has against my will become a template for how I hear the Britten songs. Try as I might to hear these songs with fresh ears, I always miss the imagination and flair that Bream and Pears brought to this music. Certainly some of Bream’s best playing is lavished on this recording. The bar is a high one—even artists on the level of Jason Vieaux and Jung Eun Oh don’t quite match it.

Perhaps it’s just me, but there it is. I doubt the audience shared my reservations.

——[My next update will be June 10, 2012]——

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