Seong-Jin Cho at Carnegie Hall (Photo credit: Min Ju Yoon)
A Master of the Virtuosic Miniature in New York
By Barbara Jepson
Wall Street Journal
January 24, 2019
Young pianist Seong-Jin Cho’s recent Carnegie Hall concert was not for the fainthearted or weak-fingered.
Even before pianist Seong-Jin Cho captured first prize at the 2015 International Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw, he had an avid following in his native South Korea. In fact, Deutsche Grammophon’s live recording of highlights from his solo Competition performances achieved triple-platinum sales within a week of its release there.
The album has now sold about 200,000 copies world-wide—far more than usual in the classical arena—with 75% of those sales coming from South Korea. Not surprisingly, DG quickly signed Mr. Cho to an exclusive recording contract.
His sold-out recital at Carnegie Hall earlier this week suggests that the 24-year-old pianist has many admirers in the metropolitan area as well. It was the second time Carnegie has presented him on its main stage since he made his New York debut there in 2017, another sold-out occasion.
Slender and unassuming, Mr. Cho presented a program of Schubert, Debussy and Mussorgsky. It was not for the fainthearted or weak-fingered. High-speed 64th notes were in abundance, and there were also mercurial mood changes, widely spaced mega-chords and quaking, two-note tremolos. Double-octave passages were the easy parts.
Mr. Cho, who will perform Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini” with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra in Benaroya Hall on Sunday, was at his best in the pieces inspired by imagery, whether from nature, like much of the Debussy, or art, like Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.”
Selections from Debussy’s “Images,” which he has recorded for Deutsche Grammophon, were assured and aptly characterized. “Reflections in the Water” ebbed and flowed, with ripples of pearlescent sound. “Homage to Rameau” possessed the necessary delicacy of touch, and Mr. Cho brought a tinge of regret to the descending triplets in the treble part. “Footsteps in the Snow,” one of four Debussy Preludes offered, was nuanced and introspective; “What the West Wind Saw” had virtuosic excitement. In each of these Debussy gems, the pianist had something to say and communicated it well.
Best known in Ravel’s orchestration of the work, it [the Mussorgsky] was originally written for piano in memory of Russian artist and architect Viktor Hartmann, who died at age 39 in 1873. The 11 “pictures” in the work, linked by musical “Promenades” through a retrospective exhibit of Hartmann’s drawings, seek to convey their singular subject matter.
Throughout the work, Mr. Cho displayed an impressive variety of tonal colors and remarkable technique. He captured the humor in the “Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks”—which could serve as a cartoon score—as well as the steady plodding of an ox-drawn cart in “Bydlo” (“Cattle”) The pianist’s take on “The Old Castle,” one of the most beautiful pieces, didn’t reveal the grief or pain called for in the score, but his memorable rendition of “Catacombs” evoked the eerie stillness and finality of the grave. And he had plenty of firepower in reserve for the frenzy and grandeur of the final two movements.
A noticeably younger Carnegie audience than usual applauded Mr. Cho enthusiastically, and was rewarded with two encores, Chopin’s wistful Prelude No. 17 and Liszt’s ferociously difficult Transcendental Etude No. 10, which the pianist dispatched with jaw-dropping panache.
Born May 28, 1994, in Seoul, young Seong-Jin (pronounced SUNG-gin) began playing piano at age 6. At 11, he gave his first public performance. Third prizes in two important competitions led to engagements with leading orchestras and conductors, including Valery Gergiev and Lorin Maazel. In 2012, the pianist moved to Paris to study with Michel Béroff at the Conservatoire there; he currently resides in Berlin. Mr. Cho’s busy schedule now includes appearances with top-rank orchestras and recitals around the globe, all of which will help engender future artistic growth.
Right now, Mr. Cho is a master of the virtuosic miniature. It will be interesting to see if he evolves into someone who can also bring insights to the larger, more profound works in the piano repertoire, like the Beethoven and Prokofiev sonatas or their later equivalents. How he meets this challenge will likely determine whether he sustains a lasting worldwide career, following in the footsteps of previous International Chopin Competition winners like Martha Argerich and Maurizio Pollini.
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