More from my interview with Seong-Jin Cho

(Harald Hoffmann/Deutsche Grammophon)

Some outtakes from my interview with Korean pianist Seong-Jin Cho, including his thoughts on his favorite pianist, which composer he hopes to add to his repertory, and which composer scares him.

His favorite living pianist:
Cho: “My favorite living pianist is Radu Lupu.  It’s always difficult to explain why I like this, or why I hate this, but his music is always so sincere and natural and always touched my heart.  His music influenced me a lot.”

The composer he hopes to add to his repertory:
Cho: “The composer I really want to study and play is Jean-Philippe Rameau.  He’s a French composer, Baroque composer.  Since I was 17 years old, I really liked Rameau’s music.  It’s Baroque-style music, but it has a lot of feeling inside.  It’s definitely different from Bach’s music.  I admire both composers, but Rameau has a very special feeling.  It’s quite French feeling.  And I cannot say it’s Romantic but it’s sometimes melancholic, sensitive.”

The composer who scares him:
Cho: “Brahms is one of my favorite composers.  But funnily enough, I’ve only played one piano quartet and that’s all, because I’m a little afraid of Brahms.  I’m planning to play Brahms after I become like 30 years old.  That is just my strange theory.  I need to explore the Brahms sound, which I think is very deep and very round.  For now, I can make the sound for, like, Debussy or Mozart, some lighter ones, but Brahms, it needs more weight.  I think I’m not ready yet for Brahms.  I played the “Klavierstücke,” Op. 118 and 119, in my home, and I was not satisfied.”

And here are some striking individual moments that I wanted to highlight from Cho’s recent recording of Chopin’s Four Ballades for DG:

First Ballade (at 0:42): Listen to how Cho builds nervous tension in the first theme with his subtly flexible phrasing (compared with, say, Zimerman’s more predictable use of rubato):


Third Ballade (at 3:59): Notice how Cho teases out an intriguing line in the middle voices near the end of the lilting second theme.


Second Ballade (at 2:20): Here’s where Cho demonstrates his flat-out technical superiority: listen to how he is able to shape and contour the bass line of the explosive second theme, completely independently of what the right hand is doing, without sacrificing any of the larger gestural sweep and excitement.  Incredible.

Winning a renowned piano competition put Seong-Jin Cho on road to stardom

(Harald Hoffmann/Deutsche Grammophon )

Nothing captures the ambivalence many musicians feel toward piano competitions — those high-stakes Olympics of the musical world — better than the reaction of the rising South Korean star Seong-Jin Cho, to winning the legendary International Chopin Piano Competition in 2015.

“I was really happy, because I wouldn’t have to play in any more competitions,” Cho recalls.

Cho, then 21, had endured three nerve-racking weeks of competition in Warsaw. He won over the 17-member jury with his rare combination of technical bravura, artistic maturity and freshness of insight across the range of Chopin’s piano writing.

“Cho was remarkable,” said Garrick Ohlsson, the 1970 Chopin competition gold medalist who served on the 2015 jury, speaking by telephone from North Carolina last month. “He was such a complete young artist.”

With his gold medal, Cho knew his immediate future was set — or as set as any young classical musician’s can be. He was propelled to overnight celebrity in his home country, and he secured major concert dates and a recording contract with Deutsche Grammophon. He could leave behind the pressure-filled, circuslike and often political world of piano competitions…

Read the full story here (Washington Post, July 14, 2017).