In spite of the great proliferation of music competitions in the last several decades, the International Chopin Competition in Warsaw continues to occupy a special place in the music world, not only for its high standards, but also for how it has launched the careers of some of today’s major artists.
This season, Vancouver audiences have the unique opportunity to enjoy the artistry of two laureates from that very competition - Rafał Blechacz, gold medalist of the 2005 competition, and Cho Seong-Jin, freshly minted gold medalist of the 2015 edition.
Coincidentally, both artists have released new album on the prestigious Deutsche Grammaphon label this year, with vastly different repertoire, which makes for very interesting listening experiences.
Since winning the sought-after prize in Warsaw, Blechacz has maintained a relatively low profile, playing concerts but constantly exploring repertoire other than works of Chopin. Blechacz seems to have developed a reputation for being a thinking man’s pianist, always giving his audience thoughtful interpretations without falling into the trap of pedantry. The present album was recorded after a lengthy sabbatical where he completed his doctorate in philosophy with emphasis in aesthetics and the philosophy of music.
It is still too early to tell how the musical life of Cho Seong-Jin will turn out. So far, the signs are promising. In an interview, Cho said that he is “not interested in fame”, but rather to become an artist and to explore music. In spite of his near rock star status in his native South Korea, he seems to have remained quite grounded, focusing only on his music making. He has not endorsed any high-end wristwatches, Swedish stereo systems, or high fashion. And in spite of his young age, he is already in possession of a large repertoire as well as an acute musical sensibility.
Each of the two artists’ albums focuses on a single composer. Blechacz focuses on the music of J. S. Bach, and Cho, not surprisingly, gives us an entire album of Chopin. In his first studio album, Cho plays the composer’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor, Op. 11 as well as the four Ballades. In the concerto, Cho appears not to try to “milk” the beauty of the many beautiful melodies, but allows the music to speak for itself. In the concerto, he seems to understate many of the dramatic possibilities, especially in the outer movements. Which is not to say that there aren’t exciting moments. The cross hand passages leading up to the end of the first movement is positively exhilarating. And in the third movement, Cho really captures the character of the Krakowiak, and the music really dances and sparks under his fingers. In the gorgeous slow movement, Cho seems to be looking for the inner beauties within the score, and he brings out all the incredibly ravishing character of the music, directly and simply.
Conductor Gianandrea Noseda and the London Symphony Orchestra do more than yeoman’s work in the concerto. Noseda lavishes much attention to the details within the orchestral tuttis, and very sensitively supports Cho in the many solo passages. Conductors like Noseda, and Carlo Maria Giulini in his recordings of the Chopin concerti with Krystian Zimerman, show us the genius and beauty behind Chopin’s orchestral writing.
There are probably no more formidable pianistic and musical challenges than the four Ballades of Chopin. To my ears, Cho is even more impressive with these monumental solo works. In each Ballade, he manages to create the impression of a huge arch from beginning to end, connecting each episode with a logic and sense of direction that makes each Ballade sound like an organic whole - remarkable achievement for so young an artist. He has an uncanny sense of pacing and timing, and manages to avoid the trap (one that stumps many great pianists) of making the music sound episodic. Even the much-played Ballade No. 1 in G minor sounds fresh and exciting under his hands. I especially loved the opening of the Ballade No. 2 in F major, where he voices the chords of the chorale just magnificently, and subtly brining out the many inner voices. The Ballade No. 3 in A-flat major comes off with a beguiling and quicksilver lightness. And in the monumental and masterful Ballade No. 4 in F minor, Cho brings a sweeping quality to the music, and his pianism and interpretation are simply impregnable.
No less enjoyable is Rafał Blechacz’s beautifully recorded and engineered Bach recording. I simply love his interpretation of the composer’s justly popular Italian Concerto, BWV 971, where he really highlights the concerto grosso characteristics of the work, effectively contrasting the different levels of sound between the ripieno and the concertino. Moreover, there is a palpable sense of forward propulsion in the outer movements. In the slow movement, Blechacz deftly balances the horizontal and the vertical, not sacrificing one for the other.
In his interpretation of the Partita No. 1 in B-flat major (BWV825) and Partita No. 3 in A minor (BWV 827), Blechacz beautifully brings out the character of each of the dance movement. In the Praeludium, he infuses the music with a luminosity of sound that reminds me of the legendary recording by Dinu Lipatti. In the Four Duets, BWV 802-805, the artist brings out the quirkiness of each of these little contrapunctal works. In the Fantasia and Fugue in A minor, BWV 944, he really brings out the “fantastic” elements of the opening Fantasia, and takes us on a rollercoaster of a ride in the tremendously exciting and breathtaking Fugue.
I would not want to be without Dinu Lipatti’s recording of the Myra Hess transcription of Jesus belibet meine Freude, but Blechacz’s interpretation makes a worthy addition to the recorded catalogue. He infuses the work with a serenity and repose, and successfully makes the music float as it moves forward.
Hearing these two new recordings by two very different artists, I cannot wait to hear them on stage. Blechacz has been a fairly regular visitor to the Vancouver stage, and his performances are always eagerly welcomed. Cho’s Vancouver recital debut has been much anticipated by the musical community as well as the large Korean community in Vancouver. No doubt, both artists will give us very different, but equally memorable performances.
Cho Seong-Jin makes his Vancouver recital debut on Sunday, November 12th at 3:00 p.m., at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts, and Blechacz plays his recital on Sunday, April 22nd, 2018 at 3:00 p.m., at the Vancouver Playhouse.