Janáček’s Piano Sonata 1. X. 1905 “From the Street”, a two-movement torso of a sonata whose finale was destroyed and whose other movements were nearly lost also, makes a bold statement opening a recital. It was provoked by tragic events in Brno concerning a protester killed demonstrating for the creation of a Czech University in the city. The composer sounds as if writing under direct pressure of the shock of the fatality – this is far from Wordsworth’s creative aim of “emotion recollected in tranquillity”. Janáček saw truth, not beauty, as the artistic goal. The sonata’s style, with characteristic folk-derived short motifs and even its longer themes fragmented, can sound more like a transcription than original piano music. Seong-Jin Cho’s immaculate playing at Wigmore Hall made it sound like real piano music alright, even if in so doing something of its terse, tragic, haunted quality was missed. But it is hardly his fault that it always feels so unfinished.

Seong-Jin Cho
© Holger Hage

Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit has different challenges, technical and stylistic, but Cho produced a most impressive account of the opening Ondine. The water sprite’s quiet oscillation in the right hand was not quite perfect initially, but after that the difficulties were all mastered in the service of the music and its picturesque poetic backdrop. Ravel wanted it “wedded closely to the poem’s framework” and made one player read all Aloysius Bertrand’s poems before learning Gaspard. He also spoke of the “suggestive magic” of the glissandi, where Cho drew the most exquisite, pearly sounds from his instrument. Le Gibet needs a very slow rock-steady pulse, observed by Cho even if its sans expression marking was not quite (how can it be in such a gothic horror piece with its tolling bell?). Scarbo was majestically done and though it might not need quite such a headlong tempo, Cho managed to play fast, accurately and above all, with a grip on the propulsive rhythm.

This gifted young South Korean pianist has recently recorded Chopin’s Four Scherzi and here made the idea of playing a second half with them all in sequence work live. The opening gesture and turbulent main theme of Scherzo no. 1 sounded here like a precursor of Gaspard, which in a way it is. The Polish carol in the trio sounded like balm, or calm, after the storm, beautifully phrased. The crucial silences in Scherzo no. 2 were tense. Between the crashing chords and rumbling first motif to set up the drama before the D flat melody made its entry is progress properly intense in Cho’s hands, his rubato as natural as breathing.

Scherzo no. 4, one of the master’s greatest works and one of the trickiest in the range of its moods to manage, was close to perfection. I rarely listen to discs of it, since they can’t come close to Richter in Carnegie Hall in the 1960s, but I might have to reconsider. The long melody in the middle – one of Chopin’s finest, no arguments – floated effortlessly out into the auditorium, casting a spell such as few artists achieve.

Cho has a remarkable technique (this programme has nowhere to hide), but also a temperament to match. If some aspects of his interpretations sounded here more spontaneous than settled, that is one reason we go to live concerts and why we will return to hear what such a talented young artist offers next. Someone still near the start of his career and already this remarkably accomplished will be well worth following, as his numerous compatriots in the audience knew long ago.

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