Award-winning pianist Seong-Jin Cho knows how to attract a crowd, which is what he has been doing ever since he stepped into the spotlight when he captured first prize at the 2015 International Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw.
Not to miss out of another opportunity when Cho’s Carnegie Hall debut in 2017 was sold out, the audience clamored for tickets and sold out his return to the Hall on January 22. However, this time he did not bring along the beloved Chopin, of which Cho is a great interpreter. The audience heard Schubert, Debussy, and Mussorgsky (though he snuck in some Chopin at the end).
Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy and Debussy’s Images
Cho began the concert with Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy with imaginative coloring, as the composer summons a grand orchestral sound from the piano. However, the balance between left and right hands didn’t always seem to compliment during Cho’s playing of this work. I could barely hear clarity in the upper register while much of the bass playing was overpowering. The sense of loneliness and melancholy ingrained here was not conveyed by Cho.
Still, he knows how to make a phrase sparkle, particularly in Debussy’s Images I, which he has recorded for Deutsche Grammophon. Maybe because he had more experience with these works, the emotions were heard and felt, and it didn’t feel like generic playing as with Schubert. The trio of movements each glistened with their own character.
Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition
The second half was Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. While Cho’s performance was impressive in technique, dexterity, and was trying to say something through the playing, I felt that it lacked sensitivity in the forte sections. Of course you have to pull a big sound out of the instrument particularly with this work, with its rhythmic patterns and power, but I wanted to hear more nuance.
Similar to Schubert, the Mussorgsky performance featured Cho’s exquisite coloring in the softer, fluid parts, but he evokes a rather garish sound in the large parts.
Regardless of these points, Seong-Jin Cho gave a very fine performance. Right now he is at the start of his career, and we are hopeful to see his maturity and mastery over time. From the audience’s reaction that night, they seemed to LOVE his playing.