Born in Seoul in 1994 and a student of Michel Beroff at the Paris Conservatoire, Seong-Jin Cho won the seventeenth Warsaw International Chopin Piano Competition last year, to my mind rather unexpectedly given the strength of the field. Certain other finalists (Charles Richard-Hamelin, Kate Liu, Aimi Kobayashi), as well as two unfortunates inexplicably dropped by the jury at the third stage (Galina Chistiakova, Dinara Klinton), engrossed me more.
Still only twenty-one, he's a quiet young man of dexterous facility and impeccably drilled technique. He drives the notes cleanly. His high-octane scales, glossy arpeggios, brilliant sotto voce octaves and (largely) silent rests are crowd-pleasing assets. He pedals sparingly (mostly). He likes echo effects (often). Little appears to faze him. On the down-side, his touch is clinical, he rarely spins a telling cantabile line, and his right-hand chording needs body and power: too often I had the impression of a weak treble and not much middle register, above and beyond the relatively shallow Steinway at his disposal. That he's seemingly drawn to anything suggestively 'modern' – the more acid the harmony or rhythm, the more out of kilter the experience, the more he will accent it – needs to be watched.
Much of this Southbank Centre International Piano Series recital bordered on carbon copies of his competition pieces – I'd have liked more tension, more pacing, more rhetoric, more theatrical purpose, more personal input. Machined accuracy, running through the music like so many well-learnt sections, pages, studies, can only go so far before interest and attention wanes. I want a player to be within the notes, not one step removed. These masterworks are for the touching, not for glassing away in a museum.
The opening Nocturne, despite a hard right-hand edge at the start (so difficult to balance), presented a cool visiting card, neatly schooled. The close of the Fantasy was beautiful. The Polonaise went on its way if short on heroics – the left-hand octaves were so perfectly calculated that one scarcely heard them for want of thrill. Needing more grace and lightness, the Mazurkas bordered on the mannered, however spasmodically interesting the Szymanowski and Bartók 'moments' Seong-Jin Cho found. No.3 failed to charm. Cadentially, No.4, the B minor, convinced. Marginally speeded-up arpeggios aside, the Scherzo did nothing wrong, with the pedalled fortissimo/sotto voce link into the A-major Trio more or less as the composer intended.
The sweep of the larger works was another matter. Narrative too. I found the Fantasy fragmented rather than global, and the Ballade too much of a headlong, dare one say even non-phrased, surge, the lyricism of the F-major material and the angst of the A-minor paragraphs wanting in clearer structural and expressive definition. The B-flat minor Sonata lacked motivic cohesion, the Finale not quite the revolution in musical history suggested by Harriet Smith in her programme note. Turning the Trio of the second movement into an (almost) cheerful dance struck as an odd decision, worryingly discording the drama (in Warsaw, a more full-throated reading, it was better judged).
Two encores – Baroque (slow, clarity of ornament), Classical (fast, purling triplets, forced minor-key accents: Schubert's E-flat Impromptu), emphasising etude-finish – rounded off the evening, without, however, dispelling any of its vagaries.
When Rubinstein and Małcużyński used to dazzle London with their Chopin line-ups and thoroughbred Steinways, they guaranteed poetic, perfume-filled, aristocratically nuanced occasions. They shaped our post-war life and taught us about syntax and agogics. Lagging behind Pollini, Argerich, Ohlsson, Zimerman or Blechacz when they triumphed in Warsaw, not to mention the many also-rans, Seong-Jin Cho's sanitised 21st-century voice is less appealing. Control the platform he may. But not yet the stage.
In a social buzz, St John's was full, Gallery included. Yet I left feeling empty. You expect more from the winner of the world's classiest piano competition.