One of the Verbier Festival’s great accomplishments over the last 25 years has been its dedicated championing of young emerging artists, both in its orchestra and as soloists. Since winning the 2015 International Chopin Piano Competition, South Korean pianist Seong-Jin Cho has taken the classical music world by storm, but the fascination with his journey so far has been seeing whether his career develops beyond his clear technical prowess into more interpretative skills, and in wider repertoire.

Seong-Jin Cho © Harald Hoffmann | DG
Seong-Jin Cho
© Harald Hoffmann | DG

Surrounded by the awe-inspiring vista of the Alps, Verbier provides a civilised setting for a lunchtime piano recital. But this was no light, frothy affair. This was pure meat and gravy, with sprinklings of Debussy delicately interspersing the hearty passions of Schumann and Chopin. Cho thoughtfully prepares each piece, paying respect to the music as he approaches the piano, giving the keys a light sweep with his handkerchief and affording himself a moment of quiet reflection before beginning. He combines a light, silky touch with extreme power, but there was now evidence of his starting to master the gradation in between, which in turn lends itself to greater interpretative scope, and you could start to see more of this in this particular programme.

The first real sign of Cho’s increasing maturity as a performer was in Debussy’s Images, with Book 1 opening the first half and Book 2 the second. Cho showed his more subtle skills in these pieces, with a melting quality and a wonderful sense of movement, also creating more air in his playing and evoking real mystery, notably in the first two pieces of each set. But he had a steely strength in his playing too, which he kept under control admirably but let loose assertively once the dynamic markings increased. The busy and dynamic Mouvement and the fidgety, splashing around of Poissons d’or capped off a satisfyingly evocative performance to mark Debussy’s centenary year, with Cho demonstrating a real feel for the shape and sound of the music.

In Schumann’s Fantasiestücke, Op.12, Cho captured the spirit of Schumann’s two conflicting musical personalities, pitting the reflective dreamer against the passionate and spontaneous. At times rather too free with his legato, Cho nevertheless shaped these pieces with care, and created a nice contrast between the alternating pieces, particularly in the rampant Aufschwung, which was thrilling but at the slight expense of some articulation, and the enquiring Warum?. The quirky playfulness of some of the pieces was also not lost on Cho, who adopted a tongue-in-cheek wit, fingers dancing mischievously over the keys. But the plaudits had to go to the fiery waves of anxiety of In der Nacht and the way in which Cho transformed from the happy openness of the wedding bells in Ende vom Lied to the sepulchral overtones as the piece reached its funereal close, subtle and well-judged.

To close the concert, Cho embodied the awesome majesty of the Swiss Alps lying in wait just outside the concert hall by applying his own brand of power and grandeur in Chopin’s Piano Sonata no. 3 in B minor. He seemed most at home in this work, with delicate meanderings explored thoughtfully and making the most of Chopin’s gushing melodies with passion and romance. The frisky and flighty Scherzo was cheeky and skittish, and led into a beautifully poised Largo, full of longing, although there could have been just a touch more restraint in one or two places. But it was a gorgeous rendition nevertheless, and the agitated, sweeping romanticism of the Finale had Cho almost standing off his chair as the piece reached its glitzy climax.

Some have described Cho’s journey as work-in-progress, but if this performance was anything to go by, then things seem to have moved firmly away from the early beginnings stage to the ‘well on the way’.

Mark's press trip was funded by the Verbier Festival