Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat major is a challenge for musicians on several levels, not least of which is that of balancing the dynamics of a large-scale modern orchestra – firing on all cylinders – with the comparatively frail utterances of a single keyboard voice. It’s often a case of asking who will win, David (the pianist) or Goliath (the orchestra). In our time, as listeners crave ever higher decibel levels and lickety-split velocities, the temptation is for the orchestra, through its conductor, to pull out the stops with this pianistic powerhouse.

Seong-Jin Cho
© Harald Hoffmann

In contrast, the virtues of sensitivity and nuance are characteristics associated with Seong-Jin Cho, 2015 winner of the International Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw. I heard this astonishing pianist, who today is not yet 30, in his Philadelphia Orchestra debut in 2018. The tremendous fluidity, responsiveness, and an elusive elegance of style at that time manifested in his performance of the Mozart D minor concerto, suggesting he would soon become a bright star in the piano repertoire firmament.

This past weekend, Cho’s gifts were fully evident as he joined Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Philadelphia Orchestra in the Brahms. Yet there was a certain disconnect between the storming orchestra and the strenuous efforts of the young keyboard artist. No matter how hard you hit those keys, there are limits to the intensity when a soloist is dwarfed by full symphonic forces. While an audience may cheer pianists who emote, sway and gaze at the heavens during recital, we don’t want to see them work too hard or struggle to the extent that our empathy becomes pity. The music should flow gracefully, not only in the revelation of chords and tones, but also as visual spectacle.

Individually regarded, the stentorian voice of the orchestra and the articulate response of the piano commanded attention and won our respect in this complex and always rewarding symphonic masterpiece, developing a more intimate, intertwined relationship as the concerto proceeded. Despite the issue of balance, which eventually worked itself out, I liked the dynamic fire of the first two movements (don’t they sound like two first movements, not a typical sequence of first and second?). Especially elegant was Cho’s take on the Chopinesque melody that comes about two-thirds of the way through the Allegro appassionato. This provided a lyrical respite that led to the third movement with its smorgasbord of thematic material. The finale was upbeat and bright, followed by an encore of longed-for lightness: Handel’s Harmonious Blacksmith as arranged by Wilhelm Kempff.

The first half of the program featured the Symphony no. 3 in G minor by Louise Farrenc (1804-1875). Farrenc was the first woman to chair a department at the Paris Conservatoire and composed 49 works with opus numbers. Her Third Symphony is full of invention, with robust writing not only for strings, but especially noteworthy for woodwinds. Structurally and emotionally, this is everything a symphony should be, especially so under the baton of the indefatigable Nézet-Séguin and the Philadelphians. 

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