Warsaw Winner Seong-Jin Cho Poetic, Virtuosic

Seong-Jin Cho brought his award-winning artistry to Toronto with a recital at Koerner Hall.
(Photos by Harold Hoffman / DG)

TORONTO – Shades of Rubinstein, Hurok, and the good old days: Koerner Hall was sold out weeks in advance, so stage seats were added accordingly. No question, Seong-Jin Cho has attracted attention, particularly among music-lovers of Korean descent. The 2015 International Chopin Piano Competition gold medalist gave Torontonians of all backgrounds an impressive demonstration of pianistic métier on Oct. 28 while leaving just a little room for reservations regarding his willingness to communicate.

For better or worse, each half of the program started with Debussy and ended with Chopin. Not that these masters are lacking in emotional range, but the dual emphasis did invite the audience to hear the recital as a demonstration of “pianistic” color and nuance, which this 24-year-old can supply in abundance.

Seong-Jin Cho

One could not ask for subtler flickering in “Reflets dans l’eau,” the first entry in a complete cycle of Debussy’s Images. Yet Cho demonstrated an awareness of the importance of the descending three-note theme that binds the impressionistic sonorities. Reflections, after all, are of something.

Cho’s fingers are fine, as the rapid pre-minimalist patterns of “Mouvement” (literally) made clear. If the “Hommage à Rameau” seemed understated, Cho’s steady tone and unbroken line exerted their own brand of hypnotism.

Next came a tidy performance of Chopin’s Ballade No. 3, in A Flat. The glowing arpeggios at the start of the same composer’s Polonaise-fantaisie, Op. 61 (also in A Flat), confirmed Cho’s deft way with the pedal. Left-hand octaves were crisp; melodies, sweetly extended. I neglected to glance at my watch, but the performance seemed long in psychological time.

After intermission we heard the three Images of Book 2 (the first triplet had comprised Book 1). “Cloches à travers les feuilles” and “Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut” renewed our awareness of Cho’s impeccable finger work at low and middle volume (doucement sonore, as the expressive marking at the opening of the former piece has it). Then something happened in “Poissons d’or.” I thought I saw fish jumping. Playfully, even boisterously.

Our Chopin in the second half was the Sonata in B Minor, Op. 58. Execution again was superb. Chromatic left-hand scales in the first movement rose evenly; right-hand quavers in the Scherzo were as light as could be. Both hands gave the Largo its melodic due. In the agitated finale I sensed qualities of propulsion and strength that were elsewhere elusive. I might also have heard one slight smudge in an otherwise impeccable afternoon.

It would be too much to suggest occasional self-sabotage as a means of creating the impression of vulnerability. But I would love to hear this brilliant player push into the keys more often. Another suggestion: more adventuresome repertoire. Chopin was obviously mandatory given Cho’s Warsaw victory and Debussy made sense given his solo Deutsche Grammophon recording. Still, stardom has its responsibilities. A little Ligeti goes a long way.

The multitude who gave Cho a cheer when he first walked out showed no signs of reserve at the conclusion of the program. Quick to enter and exit, master of the brisk bow, Cho exerts a paradoxically formal species of charm. His encores, Debussy’s “Claire de lune” and Liszt’s Transcendental Etude No. 10 in F Minor, were reminders that this fine player responds convincingly to both poetic and virtuosic  impulses.

The Royal Conservatory of Music will present 2015 Warsaw Chopin silver medalist (and Canadian) Charles Richard-Hamelin in Koerner Hall on Feb. 3, 2019. Chopin, of course, and Schumann are on the docket.

Arthur Kaptainis writes about music for the Montreal Gazette and Musical Toronto.