Modesty and Poise: A Recital by Seong-Jin Cho

The final Steinway Society recital of its 2017-18 season took place at the California Theatre in San Jose on Monday, May 28, featuring Korean pianist Seong-Jin Cho, winner of the First Prize at the 2015 Chopin International Competition in Warsaw. Cho performed works by Schumann, Beethoven, Debussy, and Chopin, a program that became notable not so much for expressive fireworks, but for an artistic sense of restraint and demure poise that had us listening to every note intensely. Even the impassioned Piano Sonata No. 3 in B Minor, Op. 58 (1844) of Chopin displayed more poetry and compressed ardor than  bravura and flamboyant gestures. Perhaps only in his second encore, Chopin’s famed “Revolutionary” Etude, did Cho reveal his gifts for the outwardly demonstrative mode the large, blatantly jingoistic, audience had clamored for from the moment Cho stepped on stage.

Cho’s preference for the Romantic spirit opened the recital: the 1837 suite of eight pieces Schumann crafted after his literary idol E.T.A. Hoffmann, the Fantasiestücke, Op. 12. Despite an out-of-tune C, Cho managed to elicit a sweet reverie in the opening piece, Des Abends, a D-flat nocturne in step-wise motion wrought in Schumann’s dreamy persona, Eusebius. The piece immediately following, Aufschwung, contains a “fateful” sensibility that Cho’s revelation of one of Schumann’s other personas, Florestan, kept understated. There ensued a series of questions and paradoxes in Schumann’s “love-letter” to Clara Wieck, such as in Warum? and the eccentric dance Grillen. The martial aspects of the score contain whimsical episodes that define Schumann’s penchant for Märchen, fairy-tale narratives that stimulate the imagination of the eternal child in us. The whirling figuration of Traumes Wirren ceded to the composer’s pervasive nostalgia in the middle section, to be confirmed in the finale, Ende vom Lied, the Song’s Ending, whose native good humor bears traits of melancholy.

Cho then played Beethoven’s popular Piano Sonata No. 8 in C Minor, Op. 13 “Pathetique,” the work J.W.N. Sullivan embraces as a prime example of Beethoven’s capacity for “recoverable contexts.” Beethoven’s composing of the work had been interrupted by various events, yet his third movement incorporates aspects of the two prior movements without any sense of dislocation. The opening Grave section from Cho arrested our attention — its stately progression has all the earmarks of Wagner’s Tristan Act I Prelude — yet Cho performed the often stormy, even tempestuous, Allegro di molto with a reserve that had us listening to Beethoven’s striking modulations more for their color than for their explosive drama. The lovely A-flat Adagio cantabile bore a charm and simplicity to make us recall our first experience of Beethoven the melodist. The robust Rondo: Allegro had spirit and momentum, touched by a flair for the comic, as though in spite of the profundity of feeling, Haydn’s playful spirit were nigh.

The second half of the concert opened with what, for many, proved Cho’s strong suit: the Images, Book II of Claude Debussy (1907). Debussy took his cue from the poet Paul Verlaine, seeking that artistic line of demarcation where “uncertainty weds precision.” The first of the Images makes an imprint of etched vagueness: Bells through the Leaves imposes two contrary motions in whole tones at differing speeds, until a melodic fragment arises – un peu en dehors – by degrees assuming prominence. The subsequent layering effect includes pentatonic scales, a pianissimo, misty section marked comme une buée irisée, and a sound of bells. The effect grants us what Pater defined as that “gem-like flame” of high art. The intoxication and serenity of effect quite beguiled us, and so Cho took us further, to the space Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut, where the Moon descends upon the Temple that was. The static harmony finds its complement in the staccato motion as we enter a sacred space, a temenos, in which Artemis herself has found a special chord that moves in parallel motion and across a panoply of key colors, only to return to its space of origin. A Chinese lacquer engraving of Goldfish (“Poissons d’or”) had Cho in scintillating 32nd notes in F-sharp Major, moving in vibrant, convulsive motion in the manner of exotic fighting-fish. Light and movement collided in ravishing panoply, capricieux et souple, as the composer demands. Whether in light or in water, Cho’s poised sense of nuance and pedaled harmony had found its true medium of expression.

The final selection of the program proper, Chopin’s Sonata No. 3 in B Minor, might have served as a vehicle for Cho’s exuberant, bravura temperament, but it did not. While the opening bars declaimed a definite power, Cho rather emphasized the first movement’s lyrical alternations of D Minor and D Major, of which the latter mode, sostenuto, gave us a vibrant melody. Certainly, Cho presented the convulsive emotions that broaden the scope of the sonata-allegro into something reminiscent of a ballade, but the emphases were all lyrical and melancholy. The second movement, Scherzo in E-flat, skittered in the manner of Mendelssohn, though its Trio rumbled in the low harmonics as a distant storm. The rapt beauty of the Largo held us in thrall for its mesmeric roulades, a nocturnal aria whose outer sections in dotted rhythm again impose restraint. Other pianists perform the last movement Finale: Presto non tanto as a thunderous exercise in momentum close in spirit to the last movement of the Beethoven Seventh. But Cho kept the horses under tight rein, the soaring octaves and chords in 6/8 never quite allowed the paroxysms of emotion they could unleash.

The first encore from Cho, the Träumerei from Schumann’s Kinderszenen, Op. 15 — a perennial Horowitz staple — confirmed what many of us had by now assumed about Cho, that his virtuosity had been less about the pyrotechnics of digital display, than about the music’s nostalgia for the dream.


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