I had never heard of Seong-Jin Cho before this concert. However, one can confidently predict that pianists selected to play under the baton of Vladimir Ashkenazy must be moderately fabulous at least. Ashkenazy began his professional career as winner of the International Frederyk Chopin Piano Competition in 1955. Sixty years on he is now showcasing the winner of the 2015 competition, held last month, to a new and grateful audience at Birmingham Symphony Hall. In performing Chopin’s Piano Concerto no. 1 in E minor, accompanied by the Philharmonia Orchestra, Mr Cho rose to the occasion emphatically.

Vladimir Ashkenazy © Keith Saunders
Vladimir Ashkenazy
© Keith Saunders
Born in Seoul just over 21 years ago, Seong-Jin Cho is a worthy successor to Ashkenazy and other great concert pianists who have won the Frederyk Chopin accolade, held only once every five years, such as Maurizio Pollini and Martha Argerich. One can detect in his self-confidence and spritely energy the advantage of his youth. Yet there is also incredible maturity in his playing. Appearing with such a quality orchestra under such a famous pianist-conductor, many might be intimidated or feel the need to show-off their technical supremacy. Cho did not succumb to such fears or egotistical impulses to impress, but focused purely on communicating the beauty and passion of Chopin’s work.  

The Philharmonia was on top form having already performed Jean Sibelius’ Valse Triste to open the programme. Ashkenazy, wearing his trademark white polo-neck sweater, coaxed a barely audible, yet tremendously solid, pianissimo from the strings at the beginning, then danced with the dynamics in a serene sway. Translated as ‘Sad Waltz’, this is a work that is bitter-sweet and melancholic in its portrayal of the inevitability of mortal fate than simply sad. Ashkenazy conveyed this distinction brilliantly through his deft musical shaping, and the sound quality of the string and woodwind sections of the Philharmonia was both sensuous and faultless.

They continued in the same manner in opening and accompanying Cho in the Chopin. The Allegro maestoso was exact, never forced or pompous. Cho has an enviable ability to make every note sound distinct and clear, shaping and balancing each phrase perfectly. After only about a minute of his performance I stopped analysing, closed my eyes and lost myself completely in the sheer musicality of the moment. Things only got better in the Romanze: Larghetto, with lyrical reflections seemingly glistening from the black gloss of the concert grand as Cho superbly demonstrated his understanding of Chopin’s stated intent: “calm and melancholy, giving the impression of a thousand happy memories. It’s a kind of moonlight reverie on a beautiful spring evening.” Cho’s more assertive performance of the Rondo: Vivace brought fresh rigour and colour to the conclusion of the concerto, demonstrating the breadth of his interpretative abilities.

A full house demanded more from Cho and Ashkenazy ushered him back for some more Chopin. Again, without any accompaniment this time, I was totally engrossed in his musicianship. If the name Seong-Jin Cho is unfamiliar to you, as it was to me, I wholeheartedly recommend you seek out an opportunity to hear him perform.

All this was an unexpectedly enjoyable bonus as I really came to hear Rachmaninov's  Symphony no. 2 in E minor, one of my all-time favourites. It is often the case, though, that performances of a work with which one is very familiar tend to disappoint because one has heard it so many times that little new or fresh is brought out of it. I need not have worried. Ashkenazy played the Philharmonia Orchestra like a solo instrument, the musicians in total unison playing with the utter precision for which they are renowned. The string section in particular produced a wonderfully rich sound, with strident basses and some lovely timbres coming from the violas. All sections of the orchestra were on form, though if I am not to gush too sycophantically I should point out that, for my personal taste, there was an overly metallic rasp from the horns in the muted sections, a bit too brash and momentarily distracting. But in the open sections, such as the driving motif of the second movement Allegro molto, the horns were magnificent and the entire brass section in the final movement Allegro vivace were terrifically crisp, bright, powerful and rousing.

Ashkenazy made me feel like I was hearing an old friend in the symphony, but learning all sorts about that friend I never knew before, and his direction of tempi and dynamics was inspirational. He returns to Birmingham Symphony Hall with the Philharmonia to play Rachmaninov’s Third Symphony in March next year, and based on this performance, it should be well worth booking in advance.