Pianist Seong-Jin Cho (from his San Francisco Performances event page)
Last night in Herbst Theatre San Francisco Performances (SFP) launched its 2018–2019 Piano Series with a debut recital by Chopin Competition Gold Medalist Seong-Jin Cho. Cho prepared a highly imaginative program, replete with virtuoso challenges but also conceived with an imaginative sense of architecture. The first half of the program presented three fantasia compositions, each with its own distinctive rhetorical and stylistic approach to the inventive capacity for “fantasizing.” The second half was then devoted entirely to Modest Mussorgsky’s suite Pictures at an Exhibition, a series of musical inventions honoring the visual inventiveness of Viktor Hartmann, composed as a memorial to that artist.
The three “fantasizing” composers were Johann Sebastian Bach, Franz Schubert, and Frédéric Chopin, whose works were played in chronological order. The Bach selection was the BWV 903 “chromatic” fantasia and fugue in D minor, with the adjectival description applying to the semitone-laden fugue subject. Most likely the fantasia was the product of Bach’s own prodigious capacity for spontaneous invention. According to the Wikipedia page for this composition, there is no manuscript in Bach’s own hand; but there are at least sixteen different handwritten copies, no two of which are alike. Lest one think that only the fantasia portion was a product of improvisation, it is worth remembering that Bach was just as adept at improvising his way through a fugue.
Cho’s performance provided a convincing account of an effort to remain faithful to the “documentation” of the music while also conveying the spirit of the score’s spontaneous origins. He overplayed his hand a bit in his opening gesture, which came across as slightly muddled; but, once he oriented himself to the instrument at his disposal, clarity and precision emerged as his top priorities. He gave an edge-of-your-seat account of the gestural bursts of the fantasia, after which he settled into the fugue with a crystalline account of Bach’s rich polyphonic interplay, allowing the attentive listener the interplay of subject and countersubject, along with the striking intrusions of passages structured around chord progressions. This may not necessarily have been a “historically-informed” reading; but, in Cho’s hands, the spirit of Bach was alive and well.
The Schubert selection, on the other hand, was definitely “composed” rather than improvised. The work was the D. 760 “wanderer” fantasy in C major, named after the thematic material of the second of the piece’s four sections, the D. 493 song “Der Wanderer.” We know the music was “born on paper” because there is a famous anecdote about Schubert himself not being able to negotiate the complexities he had documented.
Cho, on the other hand, could not have been more suited to taking on the task. In each of the work’s four sections, he had a consistently clear sense of foreground and background and a command of dynamic levels that could turn on a dime. It is worth remembering that neither BWV 903 nor D. 760 was conceived with a present-day piano in mind. Nevertheless, in both of these pieces Cho knew how to handle his dynamic levels, his use of the damper pedal, and the many factors through which phrasing is established. Both Bach and Schubert were presented through a rhetoric of the immediate present, but the clarity with which Cho achieved those presentations never compromised the fundamental features of exposition and development. As a result his approach to Schubert was as viscerally thrilling as that of Bach had been structurally awe-inspiring.
The final fantasia that concluded the first half of the program was Chopin’s Opus 61 in A-flat major, which he called “Polonaise-fantaisie.” As the authors of this piece’s Wikipedia page observes, the polonaise genre provides metre, rhythm, and most of the thematic tropes. Structurally, however, the music is anything but a formal dance piece. Indeed, it reflects dreamier qualities that seem to consistently elude any sense of there being a formal structure. The music could well have emerged from improvisatory exercises; but documentation “froze” the work into a fixed score that pianists now feel obliged to honor.
Cho’s execution of this piece made for the least compelling part of his program’s first half. Too often he seemed to be more bound by the letter of the text than inspired to follow the spirit. To be fair, however, that “letter” is far from Chopin’s finest hour. Chopin was rarely (if ever) at his best when working with large forms; and the “Polonaise-fantaisie” brings the pianist to the verge of a concerto movement. Furthermore, those dreamier qualities felt a bit out of place in a context in which structural precision had provided a solid framework for highly expressive rhetoric. Hopefully, as he matures, Cho will come to terms with the principle that not every piano recital has to include paying homage to Chopin.
Cho’s approach to Mussorgsky, on the other hand, took the attentive listener back into that domain of daunting technical challenges delivered in a setting of intensely expressive rhetoric. Indeed, Cho’s expressive qualities allowed him to bring a freshness to music that many of us know so well that we can hum it in our sleep. He also knew that, however much energy he would unleash as the suite progressed, he had to have enough “in reserve” for the intense climax that concludes the final “picture,” “The Bogatyr Gates (In the Capital in Kiev).”
By all rights the entire program would have been enough for any serious listener. However, Cho was playing to a house that seemed to have been abundantly packed with a fan base; and the fans were not going to let him leave without at least one encore. Bearing in mind all the full extent of physical and cerebral activity that made the program itself so memorable, it should not have surprised anyone that the encores amounted to barely memorable accounts of [corrected 10/24, 9:45 a.m.: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky] and a bit of Franz Liszt. I would have preferred to have left the house with the bells of Kiev still ringing in my ears.