Can piano be played better than this?
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
Franz Schubert: Fantasy in C Major “Wanderer Fantasy”, D. 760
Claude Debussy: Images (Book I) – Préludes (Book I): 3. “Le Vent dans la plaine”, 8. “La Fille aux cheveux de lin”, 6. “Des pas sur la neige” & 7. “Ce qu’a vu le vent d’Ouest”
Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition
Seong-Jin Cho (piano)
Seung-Jin Cho, winner of the 2015 International Chopin Competition in Warsaw, returned to Carnegie Hall for another solo recital, this time featuring works by Schubert, Debussy and the perennial Pictures at an Exhibition by Mussorgsky. I was fortunate enough to hear Mr. Cho earlier this season when he performed Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 both in Europe and at nearby NJPAC in Newark with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra. I covered his performances for a while until after several reviews I ran out of adjectives that could do him justice. For Cho possesses an almost perfect piano technique, and in his age group (he was born in 1994), this young Korean has few if any equals. His musicality is generally infallible and his interpretive ideas are rarely questionable, in itself is no small accomplishment. For now he stays with the “safe” repertory which shows him either as a superb colorist (Debussy), a respectable musician (Beethoven, Mozart and Schubert) or a barn-storming virtuoso as demonstrated in the Mussorgsky Pictures. And then of course there is Chopin, the composer who put his name on the world map and brought him international fame.
I was expecting a lot from Mr. Cho’s Schubert, cherishing in my memory his performance of the Sonata in C minor two seasons ago. This time he reached for an unusual work in the Schubert catalogue: de facto a sonata, here called fantasia, where all the movements are interconnected, where one of the movements is a set of variations based on a line from the composer’s own song Der Wanderer, and which altogether is quite possibly the only Schubert piano composition offering virtuosity for virtuosity sake. There are other moments of immense difficulty in some piano sonatas or chamber works, for example in the Fantasia for Piano and Violin, but there the pure virtuoso segments are woven into a structure.
It seemed to me that in his youthful enthusiasm Mr.Cho wanted to show how easy is it for him to conquer all those finger- and arm-twisting moments that challenge most pianists who even attempt to play this piece. The first movement tempo marking is Allegro con fuoco ma non troppo (fast and energetic but not too much so) and I was missing that feeling of ma non troppo. I would gladly trade... for a little of majesty. So even if in that same movement Cho showed considerable flexibility and variety in the pulse of the music, for this listener the prevailing impression was more of relentlessness than relaxation. One had to admire the speed and nonchalance with which our pianist attacked the notorious octaves that end the opening movement. In the second movement marked Adagio, I admired the way he adhered to the singing character of the melody and avoided the oft-encountered dragging. That vocal manner of presenting the theme was for me a highlight of the whole piece. In the ensuing variations, Mr. Cho opted to change tempo in each variation, not indicated in the score but a frequent choice for many other pianists. I was bothered that the faster note-values brought faster tempos, but Cho is not alone in this approach. Again there were ravishing moments in the shimmering runs that accompany the melody of the theme, though for a listener sitting in the back of the hall, it all sounded a little blurry. At other times the theme was presented in an almost operatic, ardent, romantic style which I found very effective. One could of course ask what Schubert wanted in those fast filigrees which shimmered so nicely; would he have preferred that every rippling note, though very fast, would still be heard?
The third movement, a vivacious Scherzo marked Presto, has its dactylic motif of the theme (long-short-short) transformed into yet another rhythmic pattern. Here, in this section’s outer parts I was missing, probably more than anywhere else, some degree of elegance, a sense of dance rather than a breathless galloping through. In the middle part there were again some gorgeous sounds coming from the piano, and here once again a question came to my mind: why do pianists so seldom follow the indications of the tempo and ask themselves if the composer really wanted these tempo changes? Just wondering... The Scherzo’s daunting coda that leads to fugal opening of the finale was again an astonishing feat of infallible fingers and blinding speed. The finale was again a blaze of athletic accomplishment that left the listener wondering how it is possible to negotiate notes at this tempo. Yet, in this movement, just as in the previous ones, one hears Schubert using the piano to indicate some orchestral sonorities and effects, especially of French horns, but I am afraid in this reading it was rather absent.
In the end, this was probably the most perfectly executed version of the Wanderer Fantasie I have ever heard live, a bold, unfussy version played with wonderful panache, huge sonorities and the most delicate pianissimos, yet a reading that left with me a desire for more maturity. And dear reader, please don’t ask what maturity is. Simply put, you feel it when you encounter it.
A suite Images Book I and four preludes by Debussy were for me a highlight of the evening: Cho showed himself as a superb colorist and created almost visible tableaux. In “Reflets dans l’eau” (Reflections in the water), the crystalline cascades of sound helped us to visualize the speckled light and rising and falling waters. One rarely encounters this kind of assurance, tonal control, nuance and finesse. As impressive, almost hypnotic, was “Hommage à Rameau”, again delivered with power and passion without much commotion. And finally the motoric “Mouvement”, dispatched with élan, flair and a rarely achieved evenness of touch. No less extraordinary was the selection of Preludes from Book I. Especially notable was “Ce qu’a vu le vent d’Ouest” (What the West Wind Saw). It seemed more of a twister then just a wind! I don’t recall this kind of Debussy playing since Krystian Zimerman played on the same stage some 25 years earlier.
After intermission came the perennial cycle of Mussorgsky miniatures tied together as the Pictures at an Exhibition. Whatever came earlier in Mussorgsky’s œuvre was only magnified with the powerful and coloristic treatment of the drawings and watercolors of the composer’s recently deceased friend Viktor Hartmann. Mussorgsky had visited an exhibition of Hartmann’s works and paid homage to him with a cycle of kaleidoscopic vignettes. One had to admire what a wonderfully powerful sound the slightly-built Cho was able to produce from his Steinway. I imagine that any pianist playing that particular work on that particular stage must have in his ears the historic performance(s) of Vladimir Horowitz, which every other pianist has tried ever since to emulate and equal.
Cho has at his disposal the dexterity and perhaps even coloristic range to qualify him among the great performers of this work, yet unlike the master I just mentioned he was not able to rein in his temperament and the fast segments such as “Chicks in Their Shells” and “Tuileries” were so rushed throughout that for once the notes were blurred. If one imagines the ox-cart illustrated in “Bydlo”, this one seemed to be riding on an asphalt paved road rather than thn a bumpy, rough country trail. “Two Polish Jews” can be a picture of agitated conversation, yet under Cho’s fingers it was almost devoid of the required inflection. “The Market Place in Limoges” was relentless, unvaried, fantastically fast and yet perfectly executed. Time stood still in “Catacombs” and the sonorities that came out of the piano were out of this world. The “Baba Yaga” was a tad too fast – how fast should that be? – but retained its menacing character. The sound production in “The Great Gate of Kiev” had a sonic impact, a force that seemed to grow and grow, but more importantly the sound was never harsh, ugly, percussive.
This season we heard at the Carnegie’s Weill Hall one other riveting performance of the Pictures, offered by the young Rumanian Daniel Ciobanu and described by this writer on Oct. 18, 2018. Although at the time the Rumanian pianist’s version seemed less perfect but more visionary than Cho’s, one must accept that what we heard at Mr. Cho’s recital was one of the better versions of the work this side of Vladimir Horowitz, who owned the piece. The Korean’s simply unbelievable pianistic abilities were further proven in his second encore, Liszt’s Transcendental Etude in F minor which really took our collective breath away. Of the last few winners of the Chopin International Competition in Warsaw, there is no other I would rather hear. Thus far whatever he touches turns to gold.