Monday, November 13, 2017

Canadian Debut - Cho Seong-Jin

Pianist Cho Seong-Jin made his Canadian recital debut in Vancouver yesterday afternoon, and gave one of the year’s most satisfying concerts.

Obviously not one to shirk from a challenge, Cho set a high bar for himself by presenting a programme that is daunting in its musical and pianistic challenges. The end result was a sense of complete musical satisfaction.

Today one rarely hears Beethoven’s popular Sonata in C minor, Op. 13 (Pathétique), except in performances of the complete sonata cycle. Perhaps because of its popularity, it makes it especially difficult for a young artist to make an impression with this work, particularly as an opening piece. In the solemn introduction, Cho makes the many portentous silences charged with meaning. I did like the sound of the dotted rhythmic chords rubbing against each other like tectonic plates, adding to the tension of the music. That said, Cho does not overplay the feeling of pathos that is so often overdone with this work. This is especially apparent in the Allegro di molto e con brio section of the first movement as well as in the third movement. The artist seems to be reminding us that, forward-looking as it is, this is still a work very much steeped in the 18th century sound world. Under the hands of this talented pianist, all those explosive accents and sudden shifts of moods can still startle us. In the coda, I appreciate the fact that Cho did not start the crescendo too early, but exactly where Beethoven intended, at m. 303. In the heavenly Adagio cantabile, music so popular that we can all too easily take it for granted, Cho reminds us what a sublime and profound movement this is. It is the sign of a true artist that he allows the beauty of the music to unfold naturally. At mm. 19 to 22, Cho makes the left hand chords float while the right hand melody unfolds. And the brief coda was played simply and directly, with just the right hint of regret.

We have had many wonderful performances of Beethoven’s Sonata in E major, Op. 109 in the last couple of seasons, including a memorable one by Andras Schiff in Seattle, as an encore to his performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Cho’s performance of this late Beethoven masterwork is convincing, and can, to my mind, stand alongside any other interpretation I can remember. In the first movement, Cho deftly handled the many sudden shifts between the rippling figures in the Vivace, ma non troppo and the more rhapsodic Adagio espressivo. Under Cho’s hands, the music speaks to us, reminding me of Goethe’s saying that, “Music begins where words end.”

In the energetic and technically challenging Prestissimo movement, Cho was right on top of every challenge Beethoven presents. In the brief dialogue between the two hands, he observed Beethoven’s marking – un poco espressivo – to the letter, with poco being the operative word. In spite of its relative brevity, the third movement reminds me, structurally as well as the way some of the variations are written, of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. As well, in Variation 2, Beethoven is, to me, almost foreshadowing what Anton Webern does in his Variations, Op. 27. The impression I got from Cho’s interpretation of this incredible movement is one of completeness, and of an organic unity from first note to last. His playing of the technically daunting Variation 3 as well as Variation 6 was nothing short of breathtaking. At the arrival of the fortissimo at m. 109 (Variation 4) – for me the emotional climax of the movement – Cho sounded positively exultant. I also appreciate his pacing in preparing us for the return of the theme at the end. It was a sign of the high level of music making that the first half felt all too brief, even with the inclusion of two such monumental (in scope if not in length) works.

Cho’s playing of Debussy’s charming La plus que lente was just that – utterly charming. He injected just the right degree of schmaltz into this music, and did not make it more than what the composer intended it to be – and this is not meant as a criticism in any way, shape or form - a little piece of divertissement. The pianist was obviously at home with this idiom, as well as in producing exactly the right sound for the music.

Incredible as it may seem, Debussy originally intended for L’Isle joyeuse to be a part of the Suite Bergamasque. I guess the composer must have later realized that the work should have a life of its own. This, one of the composer’s most large scale works, has been associated with Debussy’s “flight” with Emma Bardac to the Isle of Jersey, thus its title, even though pianist Ricardo Viñes recorded in his diary of the composer performing this work as early as June 13th, 1903.

The young pianist’s interpretation of L’Isle joyeuse was stunning, blistering, and above all, moving, and was perhaps the highlight of the afternoon. This is saying a lot, considering the incredibly high level of music making yesterday. To say that the performance was technically impregnable would not do it justice. Under Cho’s hands, Debussy’s notes ceased to be notes, but sound colours. It was a performance that went far beyond eliciting merely a visceral excitement. In fact, Cho’s playing was so beautiful and rapturous that I find my eyes misting with tears of joy at the end of the all-too-brief experience.

I had to admire the pianist’s courage in following Debussy’s towering pianistic challenge with the four Ballades of Chopin. I know that Cho has been living with these pieces for the past years, in concert as well as in recording it for his successful debut studio recording for Deutsche Grammaphon. It was obvious from the first note of the Ballade in G minor, Op. 23 that his conception of these works have ripened and matured. In each of the Ballades, there was an epic arch from the first note to last. I believe that this is only possible when an artist has lived with and thought about these pieces for a long time. I didn’t think that this familiar G minor Ballade could sound fresh and beautiful, but it did. Indeed, There are pianists who play Chopin, and then there are Chopin players. Cho obviously belongs to the much smaller second group of Chopin players. He did not fall into the trap of making each section of the work a disparate episode, but gave the entire work a unified logic.

In listening to his recording of the Ballade in F major, Op. 38, I had admired the way Cho makes the chords of the Andantino float. In his performance yesterday, there was even more of a dramatic contrast to the aforementioned Andantino and the fiery Presto con fuoco sections. In addition, Cho’s handling of the frighteningly difficult coda (Agitato) was so assured and secured that it truly beggars the imagination.

The pianist’s interpretation of the Ballade in A-flat major, Op. 47 was one of great beauty of sound and of gossamer lightness. As in the previous two works, Cho made one section of the music flow naturally into the next, thus injecting it with a sense of totality. To me, Cho Seong-Jin and Charles Richard Hamelin, who played the same work in his Vancouver recital last year, each brought their own individual stamp on this marvelous work, and I would not want to have to choose between the two.

Cho Seong-Jin’s performance of the Ballade in F minor, Op. 52 is one of a master storyteller. Throughout the score, Chopin makes numerous markings of in tempo, even at the very outset of the work, suggesting probably the importance of tempo in this piece. To my ears, the tempo set by Cho is very natural and logical, not rushing the music along, but also keeping the flow from one episode to the next. In m. 202, I agree with Cho’s decision not to lengthen the last of the three chords before the fermata, something that not a few pianists tend to do.

This wonderful artist has given Vancouver a generous programme, and he could be forgiven for calling it a day at the end of the Chopin, but after the urging of an unusually enthusiastic audience, with its many roars of approval, Cho ended his afternoon at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts with a subtle and gorgeous performance of Debussy’s Clair de Lune, a perfect dessert after the substantial works of the recital.

There are two kinds of musical performances, one that impresses and one that moves.  Cho Seong-Jin’s performance was one of the much more rare performance that moves, that touches us in the deepest recesses of our souls. It was also a performance of completeness, of artistry, of musicality and a palpable love of the music he plays. From yesterday’s performance, it would appear that the sky is the limit for Cho. If he continues to play the way he did yesterday, success – in the worldly sense of the word – would not be beyond his reach. But if he continues to develop as an artist and a musician, it seems to me that he might be one of the rare artists that would be remembered in the annals of music beyond his own time.

And that is my fondest wish for Cho Seong-Jin.

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