“A fresh take on Mozart” – Guest review by Magdalena Marszalek in Amsterdam
11 June 2017
Mozart – Sonata in F, KV 332
Chopin – Four Ballades
Debussy – Images (Première série), L. 110
Debussy – Images (Deuxième série), L. 111
South-Korean rising star and Chopin competition gold medallist Seong Jin Cho made his solo debut in the famous Concertgebouw in Amsterdam on 11th June 2017. The concert was a part of the legendary 30-year series ‘Meesterpianisten’, organized by Marco Riaskoff. His made his debut with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in the Great Hall in 2015, almost straight from the stage of the 17th International Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw. Not very long after that, in January 2016, he returned to Amsterdam with almost a ‘pop-up’ recital in the Recital Hall and I was really lucky to grab the last seat. He presented himself proudly as winner of the most prestigious piano competition in the world and gave the audience a flavor of what he served to the esteemed jury in Warsaw a couple of months back: a Nocturne, the Sonata in B flat op. 35 ‘Marche Funebre’ and finally the Preludes op. 28, which in my opinion guaranteed him the gold medal already in the third stage.
This time, still at such young age (23), he arrived at the Concertgebouw to rightfully take the stage in the Great Hall and claim his spot among the other master pianists. There was a slight last-minute change of programme, which finally consisted of Mozart’s Sonata in F major K. 332, followed by the both books of Debussy’s ‘Images’. After the break we heard Chopin’s Four Ballades (which also appear on Cho’s latest CD for Deutsche Grammophon, along with the First Piano Concerto).
The opening piece sounded to me like a warm up, a way to test the feeling and acoustic of the hall now filled with the audience. Cho’s interpretation had everything that you would expect from a fresh take on Mozart: clarity, brightness, energy, vigour. I really appreciated that he emphasized a few polyphonic, fugue-like moments, which then later smartly contrasted with romantic fragments. The Adagio was played in an almost meditative manner and I was captivated by the way Cho produced the sound, focusing so much on exerting the right touch to yield the highest quality results. The final movement was the place to discretely show off his phenomenal technique and great control of dynamics of the instrument.
I feel that by bringing ‘Images’ by Debussy to the stage the young pianist made a statement, that he clearly doesn’t want to be labeled as a ‘Chopinist’ (Chopin-specialist – this term actually exists in Polish). Six pieces that are the essence of impressionism were performed pensively, with great confidence and the highest care to produce quality of sound. This wise choice of repertoire presented him as a mature, multi-dimensional artist. It was clear that he spent a lot of time experimenting and searching for his own identity in each of the pieces. Yet, the strongest feeling radiating from the instrument was freshness: fresh to the point that one could forget that it is still classical music – so jazzy and free, the music just flew from beneath Cho’s fingers. He showed the strongest command of the instrument; the precision with which each sound, tone and colour was executed was phenomenal. I felt that by playing Images he could fully express what he is going through, that this is what occupies his mind. His performance at this point was truly stunning, however, it felt that he is not yet done with the search for the key to these pieces and he may still work on them and experiment more. He is already very convincing in his interpretation, but youthful hunger and curiosity may lead to, hopefully, something unexpected on a new recording, perhaps? He was awarded a well-deserved standing ovation before leaving the stage for a break (the Concertgebouw audience does not do it very often).
And although the interpretation of Debussy was something new and captivating, I was most looking forward to Chopin’s Ballades. Sadly, these turned out not to be the pinnacle of the performance. Usually I am very sensitive to Chopin’s music (maybe because we are both Polish people living abroad) and often I shed a tear or two during public performances, but this time I was left just feeling puzzled. In my opinion, Cho set off too fast with the first Ballade and he could not calm himself till the end of the piece. Everything was in its place – the changing moods, the dynamics – but I cannot shrug off the feeling that it was all rushed and even nervous. The second Ballade started softly as it should, and I hoped that he had fought off the nerves after coming back from the break, but the more he got into the piece, the more chaotic it sounded. He lost clarity and brilliance in the high registers and right hand; the heavy chords in the left hand overpowered the piece. Things were back under control for the last two Ballades. Nevertheless, I was rather disappointed with the second part of the concert. However, a warm and sincere standing ovation for the debutant invited him to perform two short pieces for encores, one of them being Debussy’s ever-popular ‘Claire de lune’.
To sum up, it was a very good debut by Seong-Jin Cho, but I got the impression that the young artist felt the pressure of performing at such as prestigious venue and maybe a little overwhelmed, which showed especially in the openings of his pieces. Surprisingly, he felt most at ease when performing the more difficult to interpret Debussy, as if this was so close to him in that particular moment. On the contrary, coming back to Chopin, after the competition and all that buzz, seemed to be something that he would rather leave behind, or put aside for the time being. Seong-Jin Cho is such a young man, it is only natural that he is still searching for who he is or who he wants to become as an artist. The wonderful news is that along that search he leaves behind him beautiful, already very mature piano music for us to enjoy.