The New England Conservatory’s fine string department dispatched one of its finest executants to a rare public appearance at the historic Harvard Musical Association for a two-night program beginning on Tuesday. Yoojin Jang, an artist diploma candidate with Miriam Fried, artfully constructed an imaginative and encyclopedic program based on the classic elements earth, fire, and water.
In the portion based on “Earth,” Jang showcased both her technical mastery and refined musicianship in grounded and essential but not overexposed repertoire beginning with Bach’s Sonata for Solo Violin in A minor, S.1003, followed by three well-known works with piano: Mozart’s Sonata in C major for Piano and Violin, K.303; Bartók’s Romanian Folk Dances, Sz. 56; and Beethoven’s Sonata for Violin and Piano in G major, op. 96.
Bach’s solo works are among the most challenging music for a violinist to perform: not only are they technically demanding but they also present numerous questions of interpretation. Jang’s performance was beautiful and poised; it was obvious that she had thought a great deal about what she wanted to convey. Her controlled vibrato contributed to the purity of her conception, and her attention to dynamics and phrasing shaped the lines and conveyed the interplay of Bach’s delicate counterpoint. My only criticism is that her trills were played too quickly and uniformly, a common problem among modern players of Baroque music. The Baroque trill is a highly expressive ornament that emphasizes a subtle dissonance before a cadence and thus contributes to the anticipation of a phrase ending. As such, this important tool in the violinist’s arsenal should begin slowly and speed up toward the end, and never sound as rapid or mechanical as a late 19th-century trill, as in Tchaikovsky.
Pianist Renana Gutman, who accompanied Jang in the duos that followed, played with great sensitivity. She produced a tone both focused and nuanced from the nine-foot Steinway opened to full stick without ever overpowering the violinist, bringing out her own solo melodies when called for and collaborating superbly.
Mozart’s two-movement work, written when he was 22, afforded pleasant relief from the complexity of the Bach. Although not one of Mozart’s best sonatas, it is interesting and was ably performed. Following intermission, we were treated to a joyful rendition of Bartók’s Romanian Folk Dances, just a few of the many transcriptions and recordings the composer made of folk music heard as he traveled throughout Hungary, Romania and other countries. We heard the set in an arrangement by Zoltan Szekely from the composer’s piano original. What makes the dances unique is the gentle dissonance that Bartok incorporates, created by emphasizing the appoggiaturas so prevalent in all of his music. They should have been brought out, especially in the Pê-loc-Andante and Poarga Românesca-Allegro, but were unfortunately lost. Thus, although Jang played with a lot of flair, she did not take full advantage of these dances’ true harmonic playfulness.
The beautiful performance of the Beethoven sonata that concluded the concert gave both violinist and pianist an opportunity to demonstrate their collaborative excellence and fine musicianship. Gutman was especially sensitive here, since it is so very easy for the pianist to become carried away with the part and overpower the violinist, in other words to play like a soloist.
All of that said, I must add two criticisms about Jang’s performances. The first is the need to create more color and variety in the sound, produced by increasing the width of her vibrato depending on the style of music. The narrow vibrato that characterized the Bach was perfect for it; in fact, the purity of her sound was exactly what made this performance so transparent. However, in the Beethoven and Bartók, a wider vibrato would have produced a warmer sound and made these works more exciting. My second criticism is perhaps subtler. Jang frequently took too much time between fortes and subito (sudden) pianos, especially in the Beethoven. Occasional use of this expressive device can be a good thing, but in moderation; when excessive, the overall momentum of the line is lost.
Criticisms aside, it was a delightful recital. Performing on the 1697 ‘Rainville’ Stradivari violin (on loan to her after she won first prize in the Munetsugu competition), Yoojin Jang had the audience eating out of her hand.
Wearing fiery red, Jang commenced with a blazing performance of Poulenc’s Sonata for Violin and Piano [on YouTube here]; we didn’t need to read the designation con fuoco. Her tone was centered and spot-on through the entire conflagration, and pianist Renana Gutman similarly seethed with Gallic, Poulencian passion—generous of projection but always refined. The Intermezzo smoldered with resignation and consolation, while the Presto tragico took us back to the boulevards of Paris.
Even though the moon reflects the sun’s fire, Clair de Lune in this duo-transcription was gorgeously reflected in shimmering water, and Gutman allowed Jang to bathe us in romantic light. Two of Paganini’s 24 solo caprices followed. “The Devil’s Laughter” (13) tickled us with cool flame, and Caprice 24 “Thema con Variationi (Quasi Presto),” familiar as well in the takes of Brahms, Liszt, and Rachmaninoff, was astonishingly bravura. Jang is a performer without fear or technical limitation; her apparently innate musicality allowed this performance far to exceed mere technical display, astonishing as hers was.
Continuing the water motif, Jang and Gutman gave us “La Fontaine d’Arethuse” and “Narcisse” from Szymanowski’s Mythes. At home in yet another style, the artists eerily evoked a world of illusions.
The longest work of the evening was John Corigliano’s Sonata for Violin and Piano (1963). One of the modern composers friendliest to audiences, Corigliano first came to prominence after winning an award for this piece in Spoleto. He also is unabashed at writing pieces virtuosos love to toss off, and this one gives ample scope to both players. In the final movement, a jovial parade, the players telegraphed joy in their accomplishment to each other and to the enthusiastic crowd
The songful encore was the first of Dvořák’s Four Romantic Pieces. Jang directed her gorgeous Strad to caress us in a deeply felt lullaby. Her portamenti felt genuine and her wide vibrato conveyed exceeding warmth.
Yoojin Jang has the requisite qualities for a major career, and NEC is wise to choose her for the artist diploma. And not to slight her excellent partner, we have invited Renana Gutman to play for Harvard Musical Association again.
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