CHOPIN: Piano Concerto No. 1; 4 Ballades – Seong-Jin Cho, piano/ London Symphony Orchestra/ Gianandrea Noseda – DGG

Seong-Jin Cho legitimates his current status as one of the splendid interpreters of Chopin.

CHOPIN: Piano Concerto No. 1 in e minor, Op. 11; 4 Ballades – Seong-Jin Cho, piano/ London Symphony Orchestra/ Gianandrea Noseda – DGG 80026046-02, 78:55 (12/23/16) [Distr. by Universal] ****:

Seong-Jin Cho (b. 1994) has achieved immediate fame as the first Korean winner of the International Chopin Competition, particularly No. XVII. Cho made his first commercial, studio recording in London in June 2016 with conductor Noseda, and to the Concerto in e he adds Chopin’s Four Ballades from a session in Hamburg in September 2016. Freely admitting that his pianistic idol in Chopin is Krystian Zimerman, whose capacity to relish the bel canto element in Chopn reigns supreme, Cho has made a fluid singing line his own artistic priority, much in the arioso tradition inherited from Mozart by way of Hummel.  Not only do the softer passages – in E Major – of the rather declamatory first movement prove gracious, but Cho’s phrasing of the melodic tissue of the Romance: Larghetto movement echoes with Old-World tracery.

Noseda has a supreme orchestral ensemble in the London Symphony, and their contribution in the strings and woodwinds provides a transparent, suave haze for the keyboard’s “operatic” musings, rife with what the Poles call tesknota, or yearning, pained, nostalgia.  The progression of linked, arched phrases enjoys a natural, flexible line, revealing no cloying, no artificial profundity. The high bell-tones in the keyboard near the end of them movement invest a balletic, music-box transparency to an amorous reverie. The last movement krakowiak (Rondo: Vivace) moves in pert, gently fluid duple time that periodically evolves into a kind of stamping dance with crisp colors from wind instruments, horns, and low strings.  The succeeding variants reveal both wit and wisdom in their fioritura passagework and nimble dexterity. The pervasive, easy lyricism of this performance will garner many admirers; and I warrant that this interpretation will stand tall against my own preference among the many studio collaborations, that with Emil Gilels and Eugene Ormandy.

Cho chooses to perform the Chopin Ballades (1835-1842) as one unit, given their common poetic impulse in Adam Mickiewicz, whose imagination combines fantasy and decidedly national elements. The g minor Ballade, perhaps the piece closest to Beethoven in power and Neapolitan energies, takes at first a leisurely gait but soon erupts into a dazzling combination of triple-meter drama and lyrical waltz. The improvisatory power of the piece flashes by in sparkling colors from Cho, his left hand’s clearly enunciating the chromatic, pungent bass line and its emotional depths. The coda, the eternal bane for aspiring virtuosos, comes off as a crisp, dramatic resolution that carries us musically, not theatrically. The F Major Ballade has as its basis the Mickiewicz legend of the enchanted lake Switezianka.  Its rocking motion could be an inducement from a water-sprite, an ondine. A blazing explosion ensues, laden with harmonic shifts and stratified melodic tissue. Both turbulent and heroic, the moment passes back into the gentle, rocking theme that builds upon a dominant to a minor, and the tenor assumes a dark turn, a ghostly waltz. Cho captures the intimate dialogue, true, but no less the contrary motion of both hands and heart as the a minor mode completely absorbs the manic coda.

The A-flat Major Ballade generates much sunshine, and it does so through an idiosyncratic polyphony that Chopin patented. Trills and roulades provide a salon context for a rather grand tour that often covers three octaves.  The gentle gallop – repeated notes an octave apart – that comprises the middle section has its own character development, and Cho graduates its tenor to assume monumental dimensions. His flamboyant, sonorously ample, free-wheeling realization might remind some of that pianist from the Old World, Alfred Cortot. The f minor Ballade proves the most polyphonically audacious, and it has had a special significance for such major personalities as Horowitz, Hofmann, Cortot, Cherkassky, and Rubinstein. Where the preceding A-flat Major Ballade ended in a happy, opulent sensibility, the f minor grips tragedy with a haunted fervor. Cho does not force the issue: the harmonic shifts and chromatic descents – adumbrations of Wagner and Tchaikovsky – proceed with a lithe, driven fluency. The Bach influence makes itself known. We know the mighty triple forte chords are coming, as are the ensuing five chords in pianissimo. The playing out unfolds as surely as we know the plot of Hamlet, fascinated by the labyrinthine resolutions and railings against fate. Cho has engaged us consistently, poetically and pianistically – the virtues of a Chopin pianist who has earned his place in this special pantheon.

—Gary Lemco

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