25th Singapore International Piano Festival

Prodigy is impressive but formulaic



Victoria Concert Hall

Last Thursday

The 25 years of the Singapore International Piano Festival (SIPF) have been an unqualified success, raising the country's profile as a mecca for pianophiles. In his final year of a five-year stint as SIPF's artistic director, Lionel Choi has pulled out all the stops, with six concerts instead of the usual four or five and the much-anticipated Singapore debut of the legendary Martha Argerich.

Opening this year's festival was Seong-Jin Cho, who won the 2015 Chopin International Competition. The 24-year old South Korean pianist has had a frenetic performance and recording schedule since then and he has garnered fans akin to a K-pop star.

In his Fantasy Pieces, Op. 12, Robert Schumann provided clear performing directives, ranging from "very intimately" and "with passion" to "extremely lively" and "with good humour". Cho had phenomenal control of the keyboard and a seemingly infinite dynamic range. On first impression, his playing was mightily impressive, but little of the manic character and colour which is integral in Schumann's piano writing was evident.

Cho applied his prodigious technique to the well-loved Sonata No. 8 In C Minor, Op. 13 Pathetique, producing volume and tempos that pushed the bounds expected in performances of early Beethoven piano sonatas. This worked splendidly for the final movement Rondo and his control in the slow, singing second movement was admirable. One has to question though the slow tempo and the extreme dynamics he used in the opening Grave (slow and solemn) section of the first movement.

Claude Debussy's Images, Book 2 has three movements that have titles and directions which give the performer more than even what Schumann provided - Bells Sounding Through The Leaves (diffusely melancholic), And The Moon Descends On The Temple That Was and Goldfish.

Cho's pristine fingerwork came to the fore in this work, providing a fluency that made this an easy listen. Technique was still pre-eminent, but in Goldfish, there were glimpses of Cho transcending the notes and searching for inner meaning in the composer's writing.

For many in the audience, the raison d'etre for attending a concert by a Chopin Competition winner would be to hear works by Frederic Chopin. Cho's performance of Sonata No. 3 In B Minor, Op. 58 would not have been a disappointment for them as it was precise, powerful and impressive. At the same time, it was formulaic - very quiet, slow playing contrasted with brilliantly loud virtuosic passages.

In many ways, his Schumann, Beethoven and Chopin were all cut from the same cloth.

Over the years, there have been many great pianists at the SIPF who use their superlative piano technique to transport their listeners to a different plane. There have been yet others who could persuade their listeners despite ageing fingers or an off night.

Cho stands out as an enigma - a young pianist of immense ability, but one who needs to decide what his musical message is.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 11, 2018, with the headline 'Prodigy is impressive but formulaic'. Print Edition | Subscribe