Another Disappointing New Release by Seong-Jin Cho

Seong-Jin Cho

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.

Chopin: PIano Concerto No. 1 / Ballades Seong-Jin Cho, London Symphony Orchestra, Giandandrea Noseda Deutsche Grammophon 2016 24/96

The Ballades

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.

 

The 2015 Chopin Competition – I Don’t Get It

Subjectivity

As you know if you’ve read this blog, before, I have absolutely no problem with subjectivity (see also how do I rate?) even if it may be controversial, and so I don’t hesitate putting my opinion out there, even if I may be a minority (e.g. with Staier’s Bach concertos that the whole world but me seems to love).

The 2015 Chopin Competition

However, things were slightly different with the 2015 Chopin competition. I mean we’re talking about one of the most important, if not the most important piano competition in the world, only held every 5 years! Former winners include legends like Martha Argerich and Maurizio Pollini, and in more recent years Yundi and Rafal Blechacz. Martha, Yundi, and Chopin specialist Nelson Goerner were part of the Jury this year!

So I felt rather belittled compared to those giants, and when the recording of the winner, South-Jorea’s Seong-Jin Cho came out on Deutsche Grammophon, and I didn’t really like the recording, I felt it must be me. Maybe these geniuses saw or heard something I don’t.

So I didn’t write about it yet on my blog and decided to give the album some more spins before I formally make up my mind. And then I must admit I forgot about it.

Seong-Jin Cho At the 2015 Warsaw Chopin Competition (Deutsche Grammophon 2015)

Song-Jin Cho Winner of the 17th International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition Warsaw 2015

Just recently, the two classical journals I subscribe to, Gramophone and Classica, came out with their latest issue, and both reviewed it. And guess what, in both cases, the reviewers were significantly underwhelmed (3 out of 5 stars for Classica, and rather negative comments from Gramophone).

So at least it wasn’t just me. Don’t get me wrong, this is fine Chopin playing, but compare his preludes to Blechacz, and sorry but we’re talking night and day in my personal opinion. And then you get Sonata No. 2. Compare this to Argerich herself, or Pogorelich, or Rubinstein, again, this is absolutely no match.

Not sure what happened, maybe Deutsche Grammophon just released the wrong takes, maybe Cho will develop over time, but so far I really don’t get it.

But even if you take the pressure of a competition and live performance into account, just compare Cho to Blechacz’ final performance in Warsaw 11 years ago, and really, there is so much more presence:

 

Obviously, you can’t have a new Argerich every year, but still my expectations were higher.

So what do YOU think?

My rating: 3 stars

In any case, you can find it here (Qobuz) and here (Prestoclassical)