Winning a famous competition is no guarantee for a successful career. It's certainly helping advance one, but it can also place every public apparition of a young interpreter under a terrible burden of expectations. Seong-Jin Cho, the most recent first prize winner (2015) of the fabled Fryderyk Chopin competition in Warsaw, seemed unfazed by any pressure in his Carnegie Hall recital. He almost totally avoided the music of Chopin in this particular program, bookending several short pieces by Debussy with two substantial, well-known masterpieces. The qualities that make him a great Chopin interpreter – the mixture of virtuosic and poetic dispositions, of fierce and restraint temperaments – were constantly present during the evening, including the two encores: Chopin’s spirited and graceful Prelude in A flat Major Op.28 and Liszt’s adrenaline levels rising Transcendental Etude no. 10.

Seong-Jin Cho at Carnegie Hall in 2017 © Julien Jourdes
Seong-Jin Cho at Carnegie Hall in 2017
© Julien Jourdes

Debussy’s unique landscapes were as extraordinary rendered as on any other occasion. Cho left South Korea in 2012 to pursue his education at the Paris Conservatoire – where the composer himself studied for more than a decade – and he seems to have a special affinity for the Frenchman’s music. His innate sense for musical ebb and flow, his ability to hide a steely virtuosity under silky, sensuous caresses were particularly relevant in the works he selected. His Reflets dans l’eau had a jazzy quality. Successive steps on the snow (De pas sur la neige) seemed to be part of a dialogue. A sense of perpetuum mobile linked Mouvement, the last piece of the first book of Images, with Le vent dans la plaine, the opening Prelude. In La Fille aux cheveux de lin, every sound was perfectly calibrated. The pianist succeeded in drawing lines with outmost clarity yet giving an overall impression of mists floating from the stage to the listeners below.

Despite his technically impeccable interpretation of this most demanding of all Schubert's piano works, the Korean musician was less successful in bringing forward the specific character of the Fantasy in C Major. Schubert was only 25 when he composed this “symphony” for piano, a major attempt to evade from Beethoven's shadow. (He was only 19 when he penned Der Wanderer, the Lied whose melody is the backbone of the later opus). At the same age, Cho doesn't seem to have the maturity and the life experience to convey the loneliness, the melancholy ingrained in this music and exquisitely expressed in the Lied’s original lyrics. There was barely an echo of the song’s wonderful final verse – “Dort wo du nicht bist, is das Glück”/ “There were you are not, there is your happiness” – in a rendition that was rounded, cultivated, but too detached.

Cho's special approach to music making was evident again in Mussorgsky’s Pictures from an Exhibition. His version of the warhorse wasn't just about dazzling speeds, the precision of execution of different rhythmic patterns and power. His ability to enliven musical colors was, again, remarkable. There were moments of unexpected subtlety (such as in the many a times bombastically enhanced introduction to “The Great Gate at Kiev”) and one could better understand, listening to Cho, why Russian music had such a deep influence on Debussy’s sonorities. There was a sense of menacing mystery in “Catacombs” and “Gnomus”. Every reiteration of the Promenade sounded truly different. Images as diverse as children playing (“Tuileries”), a heavy oxcart (“Bydło”) or a French market scene (“Limoges”) were shaped with vividness and charm.

Cho is still at the beginning of a long, memorable career. In his future New York appearances he should strive to include, beyond the standards of the repertoire, some lesser known works, hopefully some created closer to our time. Being on the verge of true stardom means having additional responsibilities towards your listeners: helping them to enlarge their sphere of interests is definitely one of them.

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