FROM THE HEART
Seong-Jin Cho’s latest album for Deutsche Grammophon revels in the expressive freedom and emotional richness of Mozart’s Piano Concerto in D minor and other lyrical works for solo keyboard
Seong-Jin Cho was fortunate that his earliest memories of Mozart were fixed by his parents’ recordings of two of the composer’s greatest operas: The Marriage of Figaro and The Magic Flute. They opened the young musician’s heart to Mozart’s singing line, with all its light and shade, pathos and humour, wit and wisdom. The music’s apparently limitless compassion continues to resonate with Cho. “When I play, I try to play with my heart, sincerely,” he observes. “I try to convey my feelings and emotion – I’ve always tried to tell a story to the audience.” Mozart, he adds, is the ideal story-telling composer. “His music is always closely related to singing and opera; very often the melodic line has to be rather like bel canto.”
Bel canto – the art of “beautiful singing” – places a premium on good taste, on knowing when to give free rein to certain emotions and when to resist overstating others. Seong-Jin Cho’s Mozart arises from such fine judgements of expression. His interpretation of the Piano Concerto in D minor, charged with expressive freedom and formal clarity, is above all concerned with the work’s complex emotional world. “For me, Mozart has everything: his music has so many layers,” he says. “When I listen to him I can feel all kinds of human emotions. For example, there are some parts of the D minor Concerto’s third movement where he uses the minor key, but then he turns to major notes and it gives such a different feeling: it’s as if he’s toying with the emotions. It’s genius.”
Although the autograph manuscript of the D minor Piano Concerto is undated, Mozart marked its completion in his catalogue of works on 10 February 1785. On the same day, his father arrived in Vienna to spend time with his son and daughter-in-law. Leopold Mozart noted in a letter how the orchestral parts were still being copied when he arrived, just hours before the junior Mozart was due to give the first performance. “The concert was magnificent and the orchestra played splendidly,” he wrote to his daughter. So much of the drama of the D minor Concerto comes from the dialogue between orchestra and soloist, and Seong-Jin Cho found the ideal recording partners in the Chamber Orchestra of Europe and its frequent guest conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin.
“I met Yannick in 2017 when I went to Baden-Baden to hear him conduct the COE in La clemenza di Tito,” the pianist recalls. He immediately felt at home with Nézet-Séguin’s rich interpretation, captivated by its myriad colours and characterisations. Orchestra and conductor returned to Baden-Baden’s Festspielhaus this summer to record Mozart with Cho. “Yannick is such a good accompanist when he conducts opera that I knew he’d be a good accompanist for a pianist too – and I was right. He’s such a sensitive musician that he reacts very quickly if, for example, I play rubato and take a little more time over a phrase. While we were recording he suggested a number of ideas that really inspired me.” The COE’s playing, generous in its big gestures and flavoured with subtle nuances of articulation and expression, supported Cho’s lyrical approach to the score. “The details are very important, aspects such as dynamics, phrasing, slurs, staccato, these types of articulation.”
Seong-Jin Cho’s reading of the D minor Concerto navigates the stormy emotions of its first movement, the romantic introspection of its central Romance, and its life-affirming happy ending. “You have to play it like a singer, so you have to breathe! You can’t play it too strictly, because Mozart’s music always has to sing!”
Striking contrasts and quicksilver changes of mood dictate the emotional weather of Mozart’s Sonata in F major K332. The work, written in Vienna during the second half of 1783, is crowned by one of the late 18 th century’s greatest keyboard showpieces, a dashing finale based on at least six thematic ideas and marked by sudden shifts between major and minor. Cho singles out the slow movement as “particularly interesting, because Mozart wrote his own ornamentation in the score as an alternative option, giving us a clear insight into his thinking about about ornamentation generally. So when we play Mozart and something’s repeated, which happens very often, I think we have to incorporate some sort of ornamentation, in order to show the music in a new light.”
The pianist found the ideal foil to the F major work in what he describes as the “joyful” Sonata in B flat major K281, a charming product of Mozart’s late teens inspired by the music of Haydn. Its central Andante amoroso, with its floating melody and delicate grace notes, could easily be reworked as an operatic aria.
The Fantasia in D minor, recorded as a bonus track for the digital and LP versions of the album, conjures up an even stronger evocation of opera, especially in its central Adagio section. As Cho notes, it explores the breadth of Mozart’s expressive universe. “Many ideas in this piece seem orchestral to me. This is, I think, a very good example of a fantasia – it doesn’t make sense to play it in a single tempo. It has to move and change.”
Seong-Jin Cho demonstrates the finesse and artistry of his Chopin playing in first studio recording album for Deutsche Grammophon
“All in all, this latest Chopin Competition winner can stand proud next to the likes of such illustrious past winners as Pollini, Argerich and Zimerman”, Pianist (London), February 2016
Long queues formed outside record stores throughout Asia when Deutsche Grammophon rush-released its recording of live highlights from Seong-Jin Cho’s performances at the 2015 International Chopin Piano Competition. The South Korean pianist stormed the album charts in countries across the region last November, securing his status among classical music’s brightest rising stars and attracting worldwide critical acclaim. His first studio recording for the yellow label, set for international release on Friday 25 November, presents the compelling coupling of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No.1 in E minor and the same composer’s Four Ballades, works at the heart of the 22-year-old artist’s repertoire. “This really is dream repertoire for me,” notes Cho, who fell in love with the Ballades as a child after hearing Krystian Zimerman’s recording of the works for Deutsche Grammophon.
Seong-Jin Cho’s performance of the First Piano Concerto during the Chopin Competition final was described by the Telegraph (London) as “unequivocally brilliant”. He recorded the work this June at London’s famous Abbey Road Studios in company with the London Symphony Orchestra and its new Principal Guest Conductor, Gianandrea Noseda. His interpretations of the composer’s Ballades were set down in September at the Friedrich-Ebert-Halle in the Hamburg borough of Harburg. The Concerto and Ballades are ideal compositions for Cho to demonstrate his rare gift for musical characterisation and subtle expression. “I notice very much the operatic feeling in the First Concerto, for instance, in the ornamentation,” he comments. “This made it particularly interesting to work with Maestro Noseda, who conducts so much opera.”
Dr Clemens Trautmann, President Deutsche Grammophon, is certain that Cho’s latest recording will appeal to the many thousands of music-lovers who bought his debut album in 2015. “Seong-Jin is a remarkable pianist, one who combines the energy and élan of youth with musicianship of great seriousness and maturity,” he comments. “We are delighted to be working with a performer who communicates so directly and openly and connects with listeners’ hearts. This recording of Chopin’s First Piano Concerto and Four Ballades captures the star qualities of his artistry and the profound insight of his interpretations.”
The live stream of Seong-Jin's performance in Deutsche Grammophon’s Yellow Lounge club series in early October 2016 with the Ballads by Chopin was followed by approximately 200,000 viewers worldwide.
Chopin’s First Piano Concerto provides the focal point for Seong-Jin Cho’s schedule during the opening months of his 2016–17 season. He joins the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra and its Music Director Jacek Kaspszyk for a series of performances of the work during the orchestra’s tour of the United States (19 October – 7 November), and returns to the score again on 1 and 2 December for appearances in Liverpool with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and Vasily Petrenko. Chopin’s collection of 24 Préludes, Op.28, a highlight of Cho’s first DG album, stands proud in his choice of solo recital repertoire for next January’s tour of Taiwan and Japan. The Préludes feature again in a run of recitals the following month in Germany and the United States, including Cho’s Carnegie Hall debut on 22 February, and a tour of Italy in March.
Since 2012 Seong-Jin Cho has lived in Paris and has been continuing his studies at the Paris Conservatoire with Michel Béroff. He signed an exclusive contract with Deutsche Grammophon in February 2016. “I am very happy with my first studio recording for the yellow label,” he notes. “This was such a rewarding experience for me and I am so pleased now to be able to share it with others.”