An extraordinary exhibition of pianistic virtuosity and seamless musicianship graced the precincts of the Herbst Theatre in San Francisco on Monday evening, October 21, under the auspices of San Francisco Performances, with Seong-Jin Cho’s electrifying renditions of music by Bach, Schubert, Chopin and Mussorgsky. The Korean pianist, winner of the 2015 Gold Medal at the Chopin International Competition in Warsaw, may appear demure and shy in person, but once seated at the keyboard he commands no less than a Titan’s arsenal of power and colors, focused entirely and aptly, to the style of the music at hand. It seemed as if each successive selection unleashed potential within the piano that a wizard had found the alchemy to manipulate. By the time Cho graced the audience with two encores, the sense of awe and veneration in the hall had us palpably in thrall.
Cho divided his concert into sections, the first a triptych of fantasies by Bach, Schubert, and Chopin, and the second half devoted entirely to Mussorgsky’s famous 1874 piano suite, Pictures at an Exhibition. The opening Bach Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue in D Minor, BWV 903, announced the combination of motor control and clarity of texture would define much of what ensued this evening. The improvisatory aspects of the fantasy section found Cho breathing the phrases and adjusting dynamics so the progression never devolved into mechanics. Even the recitative or parlando passages had dramatic import, as the music moved into the dominant from the dark, ominous D Minor. Cho’s fugue combined elements of the fantasy with strict counterpoint to achieve the kind of layering that would later make his Chopin thrilling. That Cho would make an ideal interpreter of the Bach keyboard toccatas became abundantly obvious.
The Schubert Fantasia in C Major, D. 760 “Wanderer” (1822) takes its inspiration from a lied, “The Wanderer,” after the poem by Georg Philipp Schmidt, in which a Byronic narrator suffers isolation and melancholy, much captured in the famous painting by Caspar Friedrich. Carved from one continuous movement, the music subdivides into four sections that provide the archetype for subsequent works by Liszt and Schoenberg. Cho established the motto rhythm with an authority that would recur in the course of the composition, which quickly moved to Schubert’s “dream” key of E-flat Major and then onto the C-sharp Minor of the song that would embrace seven variations. The work ends with a titanic fugato based on the motto theme that Cho exploited both for its volatility and its brilliant, virtuoso filigree. Schubert himself considered the piece a display work beyond his own capacity to render it effectively, but no such qualms impaired Cho, who had subsumed the grand design in one fell swoop. The constant changes and surges of emotion, each demanding either aggression or poetry, evinced from Cho a virtual symphony of keyboard color, the intimate sense of nuance and dynamic flux, what the aesthetic philosopher Nietzsche called “the third ear” for the verticality of sound. If the chorale and lied character of the Fantasy brought forth Cho’s capacity for studied reflection, the assertive moments – as they would in Mussorgsky – had us thinking of Sviatoslav Richter as molder in granite of musical tones.
Mussorgsky’s suite Pictures at an Exhibition meant to celebrate the artist Viktor Hartmann, whose death at age thirty-nine distressed Mussorgsky, who decided to contribute to a St. Petersburg exhibition of some 400 works, including a musical portrait of himself – in the guise of the protean Promenade in B-flat Major – as he tours the gallery. This motto theme comes to suggest a spiritual journey, as each of the portraits captures some aspect of beauty, the grotesque, childhood, religiosity (Russian orthodoxy), caricature, Death and resurrection, folklore, and the Kingdom of Heaven. Cho assumed any number of personae in the course of the suite, imparting directly after the opening Promenade a truly hideous fascination with Gnomus, the deformed nutcracker-figure whose E-flat Minor progressions increasingly border on 12-tone music. Cho made a lovely barcarolle of Il Vecchio Castello, the Old Castle, set as a troubadour’s song in antique harmony over a basso ostinato. This section and the Tuileries, the depiction of playing children and their nannies, invoked later Debussy harmony and the themes of the Children’s Corner. My own favorite, Bydlo, lumbered across our imagination in the form of a laden ox-cart, set as a peasant, G-sharp Minor etude in dynamics and a model for Debussy’s Fetes, as it moves through double forte to a series of diminished tones, Cho’s proffering Mother Russia in her primal soil, having passed us by and faded into the horizon. If the Ballet of the Chicks in Their Shells gave us a staccato etude, then the descent into the Catacombs thundered in bass tones and pregnant sighs and pauses until Cho’s right hand glimmered in applied light as the skulls of the honored dead illuminated the darkness. The fierce Baba-Yaga came as a true Scherzo feroce, a dazzling display piece in cut time, whose momentous coda took us to The Great Gate of Kiev, in which Cho simply bathed in epic glory, his own and Mussorgsky’s.
For some auditors, those who might prefer subtlety to spectacle, found the real tour de force of the evening in its first-half conclusion: Chopin’s hybrid Polonaise-Fantasy in A-flat Major, Op. 61 (1846), among the composer’s last pieces and thoroughly distinctive in form and harmony, in varieties of A-flat Minor and E-flat Minor. Cho managed the highly sectionalized structure of this piece, allotting it lyric continuity and no mean sense of its dramatic convulsions. If the opening eight bars suggest a ballade, the dotted notes displace the accents and assert a militancy the fantasy elements belie. The work almost seems at war with itself, songful and tragically urgent, strident in percussive effects, orphic in its flowing passages that Cho converted into an Aeolian harp. At his most rapt, Cho realized an extended nocturne of sublime beauty; at his most aggressive, the Polonaise bewailed the fate of Chopin’s native land. How did the conductor Furtwängler express it with such authority? “There is Bach, Beethoven. . . and then there is Chopin!”