What do the following artists have in common: Martha Argerich, Yundi Li, Krystian Zimmerman, Maurizio Pollini, and Seong-Jin Cho? If you guessed that each of them was propelled to international piano stardom by winning the Chopin International Piano Competition, you would be correct. They are just a few of the sixteen winners of the competition since its inception in 1927. Since 1955, it has been held every five years and as such is one of the most prestigious piano competitions in the world along side the Rubinstein, Tchaikovsky and Paderewski. Seong-Jin Cho was the most recent winner in 2015. 

Cho, the first winner to come from Korea, was immediately hailed a “rock-star” in his home country. At age twenty-one, his career was ready to take off. In the three years since, his life has been a whirlwind of engagements and recordings. Soon after his victory, he was awarded a coveted recording contract with Deutsche Grammophon and to date, he has released three albums. His most recent, a collection of solo piano music by Claude Debussy.

Seong-Jin Cho may not have the wavy blond locks, the huge Rachmaninoff hands, or the captivating wardrobe of other artists among the new generation of piano celebrities. By stature and appearance, he is in the very normal range, a youthful looking, slender 24-year-old. Nevertheless, when he sits down at the piano, his humility and single-mindedness of purpose is given to the music. He doesn’t display the overdone showman-like gestures, yet his body language reinforces the music his mind is creating as he sways subtly or looks upward, imagining the sound he wants in a delicate phrase. His musical instincts are charismatic. Yesterday’s performance at Koerner Hall was his debut in Toronto, and he left little doubt about his artistry and pianistic skills.

His program of Debussy and Chopin lent itself to showing his ability to shape phrases and paint musical pictures with a delicate brush and the widest assortment of colours. Cho opened both halves of the program with Claude Debussy; Images, Book I, L. 110  in the first half, and Images, Book II, L. 111 in the second. His gentle touch caressed the keys with chords to depict the rippling water in “Reflets dans l’eau”. His Debussy playing displayed the vast array of colours and textures that Debussy had in mind from the oriental sounds of “et la lune…” to the darting gold fish in “Poissons d’Or”.

The essence of the program, before and after intermission, was music by Chopin. Here his lyricism and dramatic sense were on full display. In the first half, he performed Ballade No. 3 in A flat Major, Op. 47 and Polonaise-Fantasie in A flat, Op. 61. As technically challenging as these works are, Cho managed to find the soul within while refraining from excesses of technical bravado. Following intermission, Chopin’s Sonata No. 3 in B Minor, Op. 58 gave further evidence that he deserves the mantel that the musical world has erected for him to take his place along side the piano greats of his generation. I particularly enjoyed the Largo with its simple melody spun like a fine silk ribbon. The fourth movement built to a brilliant conclusion.

This concert was a major event in the Toronto’s musical calendar as evidenced by the capacity audience with extra seating on stage. Cho didn’t disappoint. His first encore, Debussy’s Clair de Lune, felt like moon-light descended on Koerner Hall. The second, Liszt’s Transcendental Etude No. 10 in F Minor, was a razzle-dazzle tour de force.

Cho’s whirlwind touring continues. He performed in Chicago two nights prior to yesterday’s Koerner Hall performance with music by Schubert and Moussorgsky. Next week he will perform with the Philadelphian Orchestra followed by concerts in Seoul, Hong Kong and Helsinki in November and December.

Koerner Hall’s next Invesco Piano Concert will take place on Sunday, November 25, 2018 at 3pm with Gabriela Montero. Montero is a Venezuelan pianist, known in particular for her real-time improvisation of complex musical pieces on themes suggested by her audience and other sources, as well as for performances of standard classical repertoire.

Seong-Jin Cho signing cd's following the performance;
Photo credit: David Kennedy

Seong-Jin Cho shows why he won the Chopin International Piano Competition in his Toronto debut at Koerner Hall

Pianist Seong-Jin Cho; Photo credit: Harald Hoffmann/DG

​​Review by David Richards
Toronto ON October 29th 2018


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