Sterling display of pianistic prowess



Seong-Jin Cho (piano)

Esplanade Concert Hall/Tuesday

Just over a year ago, young South Korean piano sensation Seong-Jin Cho wowed the audience at his sold-out debut at the Singapore International Piano Festival. On Tuesday, he again played to a full house, in a programme that brought his pianistic prowess to the fore.

He opened with Mozart's Fantasia In D Minor, then followed with the same composer's Piano Sonata No. 3. His playing was crisp and clear, with an almost clinical articulation. There was an effortless fleetness in his fingering and his phrasing was always elegant and natural. Nothing ever seemed out of place.

He approached the free-form Fantasia with Beethoven-like drama and verve, which worked well. The sonata, however, would have fared better with a lighter, more classical approach. His pristine articulation made the slow second movement sound somewhat distant. A softer, rounder touch coupled with greater freedom in tempo would have been welcomed.

In contrast, the Wanderer Fantasy by Schubert was a perfect match to Cho's piano style. His clear, singing tone and formidable fingering dispatched one of the composer's most challenging piano works with disarming ease. He excelled in the four-section Fantasy, and was notably moving in the flowing second movement. He held vise-like control over the fugue in the final section, which then led into a brilliant finale.

Cho jumped to music from the early 20th century to open the second half, with Alban Berg's Piano Sonata No. 1. This was clearly a piece that resonated with him - he appeared totally absorbed. He is normally restrained at the keyboard, but shared his emotions a little more in this piece - a high point for this reviewer.

The Berg sonata was followed by Liszt's Piano Sonata In B Minor. Like the Schubert Fantasy, it is meant to be played without any break between movements. Cho proceeded with the Liszt sonata immediately after the Berg, thus making the concert's second half a non-stop affair, which worked out well.

The sonata has a growling repeated-note motif that returns throughout the piece. Cho played with intense, unflagging focus from the hushed beginning to the near silent closing notes. Many a time, Liszt lures the listener to think the sonata is close to its end, but then brings a dramatic new twist. Cho strung the audience along, raising the intensity and drama as if there is no limit to his dexterity, or the piano's ability to sound.

There is no doubt this was a superb performance of the Liszt sonata, capping an excellent concert. Cho seemed so comfortable and secure at the keyboard that one wishes he had taken more risks and played with greater abandon. After all, that is what separates live performances from idealised recordings.

Still, his second recital here was a sterling success. He will be back next year for his concerto performance with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 12, 2019, with the headline 'Sterling display of pianistic prowess'. Print Edition | Subscribe