Cho is the winner of last years Warsaw Chopin competition, that in the past used to launch piano legends, e.g. Krystian Zimerman, or Martha Argerich.
However, in my previous review of his debut recording, I already was quite surprised by the choice of last years jury.
And unfortunately, his latest release, a full Chopin album with the piano concerto no. 1 and the ballades, confirms my disappointment.
Chopin: Piano Concerto No. 1 / Ballades – Seong-Jin Cho (Deutsche Grammophon 2016)
Let’s start with the good part. Piano concerto no. 1 is an overall convincing performance. He uses a lot of rubato, which I really like in Chopin, the brilliant parts are brilliant as expected, but the slower parts also get a well reflected treatment.
We are clearly not yet beating Zimerman’s both recordings on Deutsche Grammophon, but at least this is interesting and worth listening to.
The LSO under Gianandrea Noseda are a quite powerful partner. Let’s face it, the Chopin piano concertos aren’t the most satisfying material for orchestras, they often are nothing more than “background” for the soloist. But their playing here cannot be faulted.
The Chopin ballades are just amazingly beautiful. My favorite version is again, Zimerman, as already featured in my Top 10 Classical Pianists posts. Another favorite of mine, Murray Perahia, is also exceptional.
Getting to Cho, something is just wrong. The slow parts are often just plain boring, I can’t even fully put my finger on it.
When it gets fast, like after 2 min into Ballade No. 2 he becomes impressive, but more technically than musically, unfortunately.
It is very clear that Cho has amazing technical reserves that are barely even challenged here in these works. Maybe he would be perfect for Liszt, but here in the simple ballades, what you really need are nuances, and these are missing to my simple ear.
It pains my heart writing this, but I don’t think Cho is up there with his peers from previous competitions.
Let me know what you think, do you agree? Disagree? Think I’m completely nuts? Please share your comments.
My rating: 3 stars
You can find it here (Qobuz) and here (HDTracks)
UPDATE January 5, 2016: By now, some other reviewers have had more positive opinions than me about this album, I’d say the general consensus is around 4 stars. Doesn’t change my personal rating but I wanted to flag this to ensure you get a balanced view.
16 thoughts on “Another Disappointing New Release by Seong-Jin Cho”
I think I sort of understand what you mean. I listened to his recording of the competition and it wasn’t something I expected. But like many young pianists he also struggles to find his own way of interpretation of Chopin. I like Zimerman’s interpretations of Chopin’s music but I don’t think I can expect something like that from Cho’s playing. He is very young and talented. So I will watch how he progresses in future. I saw the clip on YouTube and I found it interesting. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QP2Hk9Kfs7w
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I hear you. It is always tough to judge a young artist at the beginning of his career (and who am I, simple amateur, to “judge” in the first place?).
That said, there are other young artist out there that have touched me much more, for example Benjamin Grosvenor, Igor Levit, or for example another winner of the Chopin competition, Rafal Blechacz.
But as you say, let’s see how his career develops. He certainly has the potential to go much further.
What distinguishes the game of the young Seong-Jin Cho is that it refuses to be overwhelmed by floods of romanticism and gives us a rather “objective” version of these works, which does not mean that they are Devoid of delicacy or sensibility. But in my humble opinion, it is necessary to leave a certain freedom of listening to the listener: Chopin has so much to tell us according to our sensitivity, our states of mind, that it is better to leave us a margin In the personal interpretation of these masterpieces rather than “over-interpret” them and lock ourselves in the vision of the interpreter. Contrary to what one might think, virtuosos such as Horowitz, Rubinstein, Samson François, did not “over-interpret” these works. They left us this margin of freedom essential to our inner re-creation of these musics.
This is particularly noticeable in the 1st and 4th ballads, it seems to me.
Peter, thanks for your sharing your very insightful thinking here, and I can absolutely follow your reasoning.
The problem for me is that Chopin is music that needs to touch me emotionally, and Cho’s interpretation simply doesn’t do this for me.
And I must admit that I struggle a bit with the concept of “objectiveness” in Chopin. Chopin’s playing accordingly to all reports was a lot about rubato, i.e your individual treatment of time. Even in François’ interpretation I’m aware of there is tons of rubato. This decision where to slow down and where to accelerate is also one of the things that Rubinstein did really well. I’m not a huge fan of Horowitz for Chopin by the way.
In a nurshell, I probably think an “objective” approach of Chopin exists.
That said, I’ve read numerous reviews of Cho’s new recording, and the majority really appreciates Cho’s approach of Chopin. Only a few like me remain unconvinced of this album.
Therefore in the end music reviews, like music interpretation, remain a very personal affair.
I’ve shared my view here, but I always encourage my readers to check out other views here as well, and most importantly, make up their own mind!
Unfortunately I have to agree with you. When I heard the first Chopin piano concerto, I really suspected my hearing – this is after all the winner’s performance! I listened to it again hoping that I was at fault, but I was so… bored! Beautiful and noble sound, but no personality!
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Thanks for the feedback. I’m still curious what he’ll do in the future, but so far remain unconvinced.
I agree with your review. His technical proficiency is simply staggering and all his performances are polished to the umpteenth degree. Yet, I feel so cold after hearing him play. Even in the competition, I thought he deserved to win just for the consistency and his level of polish which were several levels over Liu and Hamelin, but the latter two were so genuine and moving in their interpretations.
Thanks for your feedback. I agree, he is technically so impressive. But I really never fully get him. I’ve seen that with many artists coming from Asia that have been hyped like Lang Lang or Yuja Wang. Outstanding virtuosos, but most often not my cup of tea from the interpretation.
Couldn’t agree more. At first I was drawn in by his flawless technique, and there was the indication of depth, but it turned out to be not much deeper than a puddle. It basically has the outward perception that there’s something there, but once you look harder it’s just some kind of polished mirage.
Thanks for your feedback. I’m still,watching him closely, he clearly is very talented. But so far he hasn’t convinced me yet.
This guy didn’t win the Chopin competition just because he was technically superior. He definitely has his style of interpretation. He also uses quite a bit of rubato if you actually take a phrase from his playing and directly compare it with that of another pianist. For example just listen to the beginning few notes of his Chopin Ballade No.1. It’s widely spaced and starts off noticeably slower.
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Thanks Beave for your feedback. And I know a lot of people are big fans of Cho. Here we’re really just discussion my very personal and subjective taste. I fully acknowledge that tastes differ, and would never pretend that Cho isn’t a great artist. It’s just not for me.
Firstly, I appreciate and respect your view on Cho’s album.
Secondly, I would like to add some detail about the matter if it may be of any use. Cho may have played in that way deliberately, not necessarily because he does not have his own style per se. In one of his interviews, he said he played in a particular way during the competition because it was a competition. He admitted that he much prefers performing than participating in competitions, because when he performs he can be himself when he plays. Therefore, it is not that he was not capable of producing something with more sentiment, character or personality; rather it was that playing in this manner would produce a better result in the competition.
That being said, I will point out that what I have stated above does not contradict your blog post. I will also reveal that, while I too love music, I am not yet so cultivated in music.
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Thanks Samuel for your feedback. I just wanted to make it very clear that in no way I’d ever question that Cho is a great artist. And clearly the jury of the Chopin prize as well as many professional reviewers share that opinion. All I’m trying to do here is share my very personal opinion on certain pieces of music, which really is all about personal preferences, not about absolute qualities.
What I always suggest to my readers is: find out for yourself. All I’m sharing is my personal perspective.