What Makes Horse Races
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
Alban Berg: Piano Sonata, Op. 1
Franz Schubert: Piano Sonata in C minor, D. 958
Frederic Chopin: 24 Preludes, Op. 28
Seong-Jin Cho (piano)
S.-J. Cho (© Harald Hoffmann/DG)
“Opus 1 stayed a single movement, fulfilling all the requirements of sonata form (including the vestigial repeat of the exposition), and stopping when its point was made.”
Karen Monson, Alban Berg
Seong-Jin Cho won first prize at the International Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw in 2015. He is now in the midst of his first world tour of debut recitals. He is at present a student of Michel Béroff. Seong-Jin Cho is exactly the same age (22) as Berg was when he emerged as a composer.
Apparently Berg was already, as an acolyte, a mature creator, but lacked the confidence that his work was indeed good enough to be published as serious music. His Piano Sonata, featured at Carnegie Hall on Wednesday night, is, of course, now accepted as a great first effort, but Berg was undecided because it consisted of only one movement. It was his mentor Schoenberg who read through the piece and advised the young man to publish it as is, since its thoughts were not only profound but also fully realized. From then on many of the rules of composition were recognized but no longer considered unbreakable.
Perhaps this is a bit unfair, but Mr. Cho’s decidedly partisan crowd ratcheted my expectations up just a tad and this phenomenon made judging his performance all the more difficult. The Berg was not played flawlessly, the missed notes and extraneous dissonances subtracting from an otherwise yeoman-like performance. His overuse of the sustaining pedal gave a Debussian flair to this reading which seemed counter-intuitive to an accurate picture of the young composer.
One of the greatest music critics in history, Robert Schumann, wrote that one could hear “the cold wind of the grave” in Schubert’s D. 958 Sonata. All of Schubert’s music is youthful and thanatological by definition, as the great master died at the age of 31. The last three sonatas were never performed by Schubert, however he had the reputation of not being a great keyboard artist. Mr. Cho’s rendition was a bit sloppy in places and I could not help thinking that this nascent style might actually recreate the best efforts of an actual Schubert recital.
Rhythm was the casualty in the opening Allegro. Mr. Cho has the tendency, common in artists of his young age, of over-enthusiasm which led to several elongations and diminutions of strict tempo. Accompanying these transgressions was a tendency to hold some notes just a tad too long, leaving the carefully constructed rhythm in tatters. Entrances and exits were not of the crispest variety. His accuracy throughout the piece, which was indeed approaching the sphere of excellence (after all, Mr. Cho is presenting himself as already knocking on the door of the pantheon of great keyboard artists) was countermanded by his eagerness for expressiveness which led to some sloppy entrances and exits. The signature downward figure in the final Allegro (Schumann’s “cold wind”) was treated as a throwaway by this still awakening artist. This half of the program was far, far from the memory of a Brendel or a Richter.
Mr. Cho’s Carnegie Hall recital was for me already a seventh encounter since the middle of the summer of 2016. An almost identical program was presented in Poland at Duszniki during the Chopin International Piano Festival and then in October 2016 in New Jersey. In addition I was fortunate to hear Mr. Cho with the Warsaw Philharmonic: first in Warsaw where he gave us an astonishing performance of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1, then during their American tour when he played the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 3 and the Chopin Piano Concerto No. 1: the last two concerts were reviewed for ConcertoNet in October.
Thus it was not exactly a surprise to encounter in the Chopin Preludes Op. 28 a reading of such a mastery of mind and fingers. If I were to name the two most difficult works of this composer, the preludes would have been there together with both books of etudes. Supposedly Chopin used those miniatures, some of which take only a few seconds to perform, as teaching material: in that case they do present a compendium of the problems any pianist would encounter within other works of this enigmatic creator. There are some which are notorious for their strictly pianistic difficulties such as No. 8 in F sharp minor, No. 16 in B-flat minor, No. 19 in E-flat major or the final No. 24 in D minor. There are others that demand from the pianist a mastery of cantilena, bel canto playing. There are still others where a mood has to be created just for a few moments by which time the music switches to another mood.
What impressed me in this young man from the very first notes of the C major Prelude was his infinite tonal control and ability to shape phrases. His style of playing is refreshingly old-fashioned: hands are seldom together which allows for illuminating the vocal line of music and at the same time allows the left hand accompaniment to come through. I can’t deny I am impressed when the young generation applies the way of playing known to the generation of Paderewski and his contemporaries: Cho does it with utmost care and it never sounds like a caricature. Another characteristic of his playing is a creation of spontaneity and here I was even more impressed. Playing those little miniatures demands a great deal not only of physical but also mental control: I was pleased to see that after a whole season of performing Preludes Op. 28 the sense of naturalness and freshness was intact. The longer of the preludes need also to tell a story however short and Mr. Cho was always able to create that mini-drama with its culmination and then repose. As I have noticed when he played Chopin Piano Concerto his phrasing is of a vocal nature: like a great singer he knows not only how to produce a full-volume sound but also how to hum. That expressiveness, variety of moods and delectable sense of poetry creates a charged, emotional atmosphere and climate that only the very best musicians are sometimes able to craft.
Then there is another aspect, which is Mr. Cho’s ability to play piano. In one word it is astonishing. Yes, we live in a world of young wizards, who play the instrument better than one would think is possible. It would be unfair to make any comparisons as to who has better “finger-control”, i.e. ability to negotiate notes fast, loud and accurately. Cho is there with the best of them. The so called “difficult” (read impossibly difficult) preludes this young Korean ate alive. I have some doubts that Chopin might have wanted No.16 in B-flat minor played with such blazing speed: was it even possible in those days? Or more importantly: was it necessary? But Cho negotiated all the notes with breath-taking accuracy for we, in the audience not he at the piano, were gasping for breath. The final three hammer-blows on low d to close the cycle were hammered indeed with both hands for added volume. Chopin’s piano would not have survived.
So Cho proved himself to be an uncommonly gifted pianist with not only great technique but also ability to coax from his piano sound that is delicate, subtle, sensitive and, when necessary, massive. Reaching back in my memory and trying to recall a performance of complete Preludes of such magnitude made me think that one would have to go back more than four decades to the times of young Argerich or a little closer to our era when Ivo Pogorelich in his prime performed them at Carnegie Hall.
The young Korean received a thunderous ovation and reception usually reserved for rock stars: it didn’t hurt that in the audience was a huge component of Cho’s countrymen for whom he has become a hero. He rewarded his fans with the three encores: Debussy “Clair de lune” from the Suite bergamasque, Chopin Ballade No. 1 and Bach “Sarabande” from the Partita No. 5.
Tonally the Debussy encore was simply out of this word: the hammers on the piano have disappeared. Was it a harbinger of the repertory to come? That was followed by Chopin where with all its excellence and brilliance, virtuosity told the story as it can only be told by a 20 –something teller. The Bach “Sarabande” was lovely and a proper way to send the crowd home. Here I noticed just one tiny slight slip of the finger which permitted me to think that Cho is a human after all.
As I was leaving the hall by the stage door (the one by which artists usually come and depart), I saw a throng of a hundred or more young Koreans patiently waiting just to catch a glance at their idol, maybe to ask for his autograph, perhaps to take a picture with him. I wished I could have gone back to the green room (alas, inaccessible to the majority of patrons by the decree of Carnegie Hall administration, perhaps a result of security concerns) and let Mr. Cho know that his audience still waits for him. I want to believe that those young, eager aficionados were at the end rewarded.