Seong-Jin Cho at the Barbican

Handel
Suite in E, HWV430

Gubaidulina
Chaconne

Brahms
Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, Op.24
Eight Piano Pieces, Op.76 [selections]

Schumann
Etudes symphoniques, Op.13

Seong-Jin Cho (piano)


Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 13 February, 2023
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

When Seong-Jin Cho won the Chopin prize in 2015, the Korean pianist looked more a boy than a young man of twenty-one. In the following eight years, his stature as an artist has grown stratospherically, and while he may have embarked on his career as a formidable Chopin player, he has been moving into bigger, heavier repertoire.

This Barbican recital – Cho’s first – saw him rise to the technical and interpretive challenges of some seriously epic, romantic music in impressive style, giving rise to those thoughts that don’t occur so often of a completely connected artist, both master and servant of what he was playing. He also devised the programme cleverly, with links between the works both explicit and implied – the Handel Suite complemented by the Brahms Variations, then referencing the intense but fruitful Schumann-Brahms ménage.

Cho’s way into the evening was via Handel and his ‘Harmonious Blacksmith’ Suite, played with eminent poise and freshness – and without any recourse to the sustaining pedal. The elaborate decorations were supple and quasi-vocal, he terraced matters of volume and tempo with the utmost finesse, and then in the ‘Air and Variations’ final movement let himself off the leash with panache. Yes, it was a romantic-baroque hybrid, with style and content vying for supremacy, and it also set up the drastic sonorities of Sofia Gubaidulina’s Chaconne, a work from 1962 that exaggerates baroque variation practice in creating and releasing tension, with some explosive results. After the Handel it was like moving from a pilates class to Olympic weightlifting, and the sight of the slight Cho changing from controlled stillness to volume-inducing body spasms was quite a shock.

Cho was quoted as considering Brahms’s Handel Variations as the best ever written, and then went on to make his case in a performance of breathtaking imagination and insight, up for all Brahms’s rhythmic inventiveness, shifts between dreamy weightlessness and Baroque monumentalism, crowned by a thrilling account of the fugal peroration.

The interval separated young Brahms at his most public and leonine from the bearded, increasingly private older man who had started to write piano music mainly for himself – and for the now-widowed Clara Schumann – short pieces with non-committal titles that often muse on youthful glories with a sort of bemused, melancholic acceptance. Cho’s expressive directness released the mystique of four of the Opus 76 Klavierstücke in a way that spoke movingly to the heroic optimism of Schumann’s Etudes symphoniques, a wonderful account that caught Schumann’s brand of fantasy, with dialogues unfolding between individual variations, vividly animated by Cho’s powers of characterisation, and his huge range of colour and touch; his delivery of the magnificent conclusion was a masterpiece of delayed gratification, brilliantly played.

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