Last night in Herbst Theatre, Chamber Music San Francisco presented the San Francisco debut of South Korean pianist (now living in Paris) Seong-Jin Cho. In 2015 Cho won the First Prize at the Chopin International Piano Competition in Warsaw at the age of 21 However, he made it a point to prepare a debut program that would demonstrate that his aesthetic was not all about Chopin (as had been the case with his live debut album for Deutsche Grammophon (DG), which was released this past December). While the second half of the program was devoted entirely to the Frédéric Chopin’s Opus 28 set of 24 preludes in all major and minor keys, the first half promised an intriguing contrast of sonatas by Franz Schubert (D. 958 in C minor) and Alban Berg (Opus 1).
Sadly, in was not until Cho took his encores that there were any signs of serious attentiveness to the music, rather than all-over-the-map expressive indulgence that had far more to do with the nineteenth-century showmanship of extroverts like Franz Liszt than with either the letter or the spirit of the music Cho had selected to perform. Ironically, the selection that demonstrated that Cho was capable of more than posturing was composed by Liszt, the third of the six Grandes études de Paganini best known by its nickname “La campanella” (the little bell). Given that this was the result of the consummate showman at the keyboard taking on the consummate showman at the violin, one would have thought this that would be a clear-cut case of exhibitionism on steroids. Nevertheless, Cho took this score as evidence that Liszt had a playful side; and it was that sense of play that guided his interpretation. The result was intensive involvement with highly challenging technical demands delivered through a rhetoric that made it clear that there were any number of moments when Liszt himself had probably been chuckling.
That sense of play turned out to be Cho’s saving grace. It surfaced briefly in the second theme of the final movement of D. 958, whose bouncing rhetoric provided a slight foretaste of Liszt’s étude. Also, one could detect a wisp of a smile or two during the traversal of the Opus 28 preludes; but these were gone-before-you-know-it flashes in the pan. His approach to “La campanella” was one of unabashed delight; and that delight was infectious enough to spill through the proscenium into the audience area.
Then, almost as if to affirm that his approach to this étude was not some statistical anomaly, Cho offered up a second encore that was, again, a major improvement over the bulk of the evening, but in an entirely different direction. He chose to play the Adagio (second) movement from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 332 sonata in F major. This is a movement whose surface-level simplicity conceals no end of eyebrow-raising moments, each delivered with the sort of quiet subtlety that richly rewards the attentive listener. Cho clearly appreciated just how remarkable this movement is and that its richest qualities are almost hidden in plain sight. His approach encouraged those attentive listening practices, and those committed to them were well rewarded.
If only the path to these two gems of the evening had not been so arduous! Cho’s approach to Mozart made it clear that he knows more than a thing or two about sonata forms. However, in both the Schubert and the Berg selections, it almost seemed as if he had not yet registered the critical role of recapitulation, which mattered as much to Berg as it did to Schubert. At the same time, Cho seemed so puzzled by Berg’s ambiguous chord structures that he felt that all he could do was smooth them out with hypertrophied expressive phrasing that might even make Lang Lang blush. That same excess of expression did much to unravel most of the preludes in the Chopin collection.
Ironically, Cho’s approach to the Opus 11 (first) Chopin piano concerto in E minor on the DG recording is far less self-indulgent. Much of this may have to do with his engagement with Gianandrea Noseda leading the London Symphony Orchestra. However, the factor of play may again come into the picture. Opus 11 may not show Chopin’s talents in the best possible light, but there is a playfulness to that concluding Rondo movement that often eludes pianists who taken themselves too seriously. While this was a “live” recording, it was made at the Abbey Road Studios in London; and perhaps Cho tends to fare better behind a keyboard when he is not worrying about “presentation of self” to an audience.
On the other hand we should not dismiss the possibility that Noseda’s guiding hand had as much to do with Cho’s solo work as with as the orchestral side of the concerto. The remainder of the DG album is devoted to the four Chopin Ballades. Those who were not at last night’s recital may consult these tracks to get a good sense of Cho’s tendencies towards over-indulgent exaggerations of expressiveness. There is, of course, historical value in “the old ways” of the nineteenth century; but such experiences are best appreciated in smaller doses.