Having watched the web live-stream of Seong-Jin Cho’s performances at last year’s Chopin Competition and subsequently listened to the live CD as well, I already had a fair idea of his playing before I attended his all-Chopin recital in London. If anything, I was hoping that he would surprise me in some way, but in the event his playing of Chopin works was pretty much as I’d imagined – for better or for worse.

Seong-Jin Cho © Fryderyk Chopin Institute | Bartek Sadowski
Seong-Jin Cho
© Fryderyk Chopin Institute | Bartek Sadowski

Cho is an exceptional pianist in many ways. Technically he is assured and mature, and shows incredible self-composure for a 21-year-old, and has none of the attention-seeking behaviour of some young pianists. He sits calmly at the piano, meditates for a moment (probably forming the mental image of the piece) before he plunges into the piece with youthful focus and energy. Everything is controlled in his performance: tone, phrasing and dynamics. His has a sensitive touch and evenness of tone – qualities suited to Chopin playing – and his pianissimo playing is particularly exquisite.

In the first half, Cho played a selection from Chopin’s smaller character pieces, He opened with the sombre C minor Nocturne, followed by the F minor Fantasie, and in both works he highlighted the contrast of the introspective and the passionate. In the four Op.33 Mazurkas, the G sharp minor work had wistful lyricism, but he found crispness and bold rhythms in the D major mazurka. The “Herioc” Polonaise, which earned Cho the prize for the best performance of a polonaise at the Chopin Competition, was performed with effortless virtuosity (the left hand descending octaves were fast but not too thunderous), although it sounded a little routine, as if he’d played the work a little too often (which – understandably – he probably has).

Personally, the highlight of Cho’s recital was the B flat minor sonata in the second half. Here he rose above the technical virtuosity and beauty of tone, and showed more of his personality. The first movement was taken at a swift tempo with a sense of urgency, and the development was gripping. The ternary-form Scherzo began resolutely, but he brought simplicity and lyricism in the middle section, especially the melody in the left hand. The famous Marche funèbre was solemnly executed: here too, he brought hushed poignancy to the celestial middle section, before returning to the funeral march which sounded like tolling bells with effective use of pedal. He concluded with a turbulent but controlled finale. Cho sandwiched the sonata with the second Ballade and second Scherzo, but in these works I missed the sense of storytelling and unfolding drama. He is great at contrasting the dramatic and lyrical, but after a while, this approach can feel somewhat one-dimensional.

Overall, one can safely say that he is a worthy winner of the Chopin competition, but the challenge for any Chopin winner is that after the initial fever is over (Cho is already a star in Korea), he/she would have to prove him/herself in a wider repertoire (the competition is judged solely on the performance of Chopin works). I know Cho has already been playing other repertoire in some recitals, but it is interesting to see which repertoire he will tackle next. In fact, he offered two non-Chopin encores: Sarabande from Bach’s French Suite no. 5 and Schubert’s E-flat Impromptu from the D899 set. He played both with elegance and good taste, although neither had a strong sense of style, which is something he needs to pursue. Still, it is early days and I hope Cho will find his voice and style in the years to come.