THE HANDEL PROJECT – Seong-Jin Cho, Piano – DG

by | May 30, 2023 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

THE HANDEL PROJECT = HANDEL: Suite No. 2 in F Major; Suite No. 8 in F Minor; Suite No. 5 in E Major; Sarabande in B-flat Major; Minuet in G Minor (arr. Kempff); BRAHMS: Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Handel, Op. 24 – Seong-Jin Cho, piano – DG 486 3018 (65:48) [Distr. by Universal] *****:

Korean piano virtuoso (b. 1994), winner of the XVII International Chopin Competition, turns to the music of George Frideric Handel (recorded September 2022), convinced that these original harpsichord suites of 1720 and 1733 possess an instant appeal to musicians who favor the modern, concert grand piano. In this regard, Cho follows both Glenn Gould and Sviatoslav Richter, both of whom had no qualms about translating the pellucid texture of the older instrument to the demands and possibilities of a more “orchestral” sound. Cho himself claims that his left hand should imitate a bassoon and the right a violin in the course of realization modeled on the spirited interplay of a concerto grosso. 

Cho opens with Handel’s Suite No. 2 in F Major, HWV 427, which substitutes Adagio and Allegro designations where Bach would include national dances. A refined delicacy of touch and ornamentation mark Cho’s initial Adagio, stately and meditative. The verve and clarity of line – without pedal – in the two Allegro movements, the second of which proceeds as a fugue, enjoys a clarity of line and speedy articulation likely influenced by the late Glenn Gould. The second Adagio emerges as an intimate duet. Buoyancy and light-hearted spirits mark the concluding Fugue, with Cho’s etched punctuation of the voices meant to savor their interplay. 

The Suite No. 8 in F Minor, HWV 433, in a more “traditional” structural format, no less retains a purity of line in its somber affect, aided by lack of pedal effects. After the introspective Prelude, Cho launches into the more severe contours of the Fugue, with its declamatory tenor, its emotional insistence. The plastic, expansive Allemande receives the benefits of Cho’s capacity for legato in polyphonic context. The running motion of the following Courante thrusts a hearty energy forward, its askew agogics adding to the nervous impetus of the occasion. Finally, a sparkling Gigue in sprinting figures, much in a style that Mozart would imitate in his own 1789 Gigue in G, K. 574. 

Handel’s Suite No. 5 in E Major, HWV 430 endures in our collective memory because of its movement four, the Air with 5 Variations in B-flat, “the Harmonious Blacksmith.” In Cho’s rendition of the opening Prelude he captures the antique sound of the harpsichord and its earlier incarnation in the English virginal, derived from the lute tradition. Cho’s Allemande basks in broad, stately elegance, aristocratic and colorful. The lengthy Allemande yields to the brisk flurries of the Courante, a contrapuntal tour de force in staccato and plastic acciaccaturas. The ever-charming “Harmonious Blacksmith” luxuriates in supple articulation and an exciting sense of sustained momentum.  

Johannes Brahms drew upon a theme from Handel’s Suite No. 1 in B-flat Major, HWV 434 for his massive set of variations of 1861. The combination of pianistic girth and coloristic sophistication embedded in this opus rivals virtually all comparisons in the style, including Beethoven’s Op. 120 Diabelli Variations. The ease and fluency of the variants embraces dances, abstract character pieces, and national styles, including the composer’s own, early experience in Hungarian and gypsy colors. Cho competes with the likes of Backhaus, Moiseiwitsch, and Bolet for sheer power of expression, as well as kaleidoscopic sensitivity in his dynamic palette. Each auditor has his own favorites, like No. XI, Dolce, a gentle siciliano; the Hungarian XIII, Largamente; No. XVI, Piano ma marcato; or the marvelous study in touch, No. XXII, an alla musette, here a chimed, musical clock. The power of Cho’s octaves and the speed of his runs must be allotted their full due. The last three variants prior to the Fuga increase velocity and intensity, spreading the dominant interval from a fourth to fifth and preparing us for the brilliant invention of Brahms’s fierce, even demonic, four-voice polyphony. 

Cho concludes his powerful exhibition of pianistic color and technical bravura with two selections from Handel’s second collection of suites, 1733. The Spanish color of the Sarabande from Suite No. 7 in B-flat appears as an emotional foil to the upheavals of the Brahms fugue. Its delicate, woven tracery hints at a world of otherwise lost refinement. The Minuet in G Minor comes from that same Suite No. 1 in B-flat that provides Brahms with his theme. Here, the arrangement by German pianist Wilhelm Kempff instills a lasting sense of peace, an extended Lied to a better world. 

This album comes highly recommended.

—Gary Lemco

Seong-Jin Cho, Piano
Suite No. 2 in F Major, HWV 427
Suite No. 8 in F Minor, HWV 433
Suite No. 5 in E Major, HWV 430
Suite No. 7 in B-Flat Major, HWV 440: III. Sarabande
Suite in B-Flat Major, HWV 434: IV. Minuet (Arr. Kempff for Piano)
Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, Op. 24

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