The bio of Seong-Jin Cho says that he “has established himself worldwide as one of the leading pianists of his generation.” The bio of every young musician there is says that he is “one of the leading pianists [or violinists or singers or kazoo-ists] of his generation.” But Cho really is.
He played a recital in Carnegie Hall last night. His program consisted mainly of canonical works. People will always want to play them. And hear them. Last night’s recital was sold out, and the hall was stocked with the pianist’s fellow Koreans. Many in the audience were young, which was pleasant and reassuring to see.
The evening’s composers were Handel, Schumann, Brahms, and Sofia Gubaidulina. There was nothing French on the program, which I mention because Seong-Jin Cho is a very good player of French Impressionism. He studied with one of the best in this field: Michel Béroff.
Cho walked out onto the stage in cool-cat fashion, slow. Then he sat down to Handel’s “Harmonious Blacksmith.” Formally, this work is the Suite No. 5 in E major. It ends with an air and variations—and this section is what is known as “The Harmonious Blacksmith.” I think I first heard it from Alicia de Larrocha, moons ago. Later, Murray Perahia made a splendid recording of it.
Last night, I could not help staring at Seong-Jin Cho’s feet. What do I mean? Throughout the suite, he never touched the sustain pedal, not once. His feet got nowhere near the pedals. Yet his legato was wonderful. He played supplely and richly. This says something important about the young man’s technical ability. Also, he played his Handel with musical taste.
Next on the program was Gubaidulina’s Chaconne, which she wrote at the beginning of her career, in 1962, when she was thirty-one. But when I write this, I smile, inwardly: because Schubert died at that very age.
Cho attacked the Chaconne with the right musical aggressiveness. He reminded me of Maurizio Pollini, that master of cold exactitude. Cho’s concentration was fierce—and in this he reminded me of two younger pianists: Daniil Trifonov and Igor Levit. Intense concentration is a must in high modernism, and in other types of music as well.
Without leaving the stage, Cho went right into the next piece, Brahms’s Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel. I wish Cho had let the air clear a bit more—allowing the modernism to fade before introducing the Brahms.
He gave a fine reading of the Handel Variations (as they are known in shorthand). He was patient without being sluggish—a sign of maturity. Each variation has its own character. You and I might have differed from Cho, interpretively. In this variation, I wanted more majesty; in that variation, I wanted more slinkiness. I think that the penultimate variation should be unbearable in its suspensefulness. There is a thrilling build-up to the final variation. I was unthrilled.
How about the fugue? From Cho’s hands, it was beautifully logical, or logically beautiful.
After intermission, there was more Brahms, in the form of his Op. 76: Cho played three caprices and one intermezzo. He is a fine Romantic, a fine poet. He showed essentially the same concentration he had in the Gubaidulina. Again, you could have argued, interpretively. Take the famous Caprice in B minor, Op. 76, No. 2. I would have liked it more . . . capricious. More playful and scherzo-like.
Without getting up from the piano, without bowing, without allowing applause, without pausing, without anything—Cho began the final work on the program, Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes. I can’t wait for this fashion to pass. The Brahms and the Schumann are separate works. I imagine some in the audience were confused: Were the Brahms pieces continuing? When would the Schumann begin?
You might say, “The last Brahms piece Cho played is in C-sharp minor, and the Symphonic Etudes are in C-sharp minor.” To which I would say, “So? No excuse.”
In any event, Cho played his Schumann with intelligent virtuosity. He knew how to be a singer in his left hand, while accompanying himself in his right. To say it once more: you could have argued with Cho, etude to etude. Take the Etude No. 7. It is one of my favorite things in all the world. I like it smooth and slightly jazzy. (Maybe this is my bias as an American.) Cho likes it “vertical” and choppy. This was way too mechanical for me. The final etude ought to have pomp and swagger. It had too little.
But you know what was really wonderful? The Posthumous Variation No. 5: raindroppy.
I look forward to hearing Seong-Jin Cho again and watching him go from strength to strength.