Review: Seong-Jin Cho impressive but incomplete in Ottawa debut

Seong-Jin Cho. Photo Harald Hoffman

You can take the pianist out of the competitions, but sometimes you can’t take the competitions out of the pianist.

Seong-Jin Cho’s international career took off when he won the 2015 Warsaw Chopin Competition (beating Canadian runner-up Charles Richard-Hamelin). The then-21-year-old Korean was quickly signed to Deutsche Grammophon and a breakneck schedule of concerts and recitals around the world.

The now 23-year-old made his Ottawa debut on Tuesday night, replacing an injured Lang Lang for a solo recital at Southam Hall. What we heard was an impressive but still incomplete young artist, whose emotional expression and sense of identity have not quite caught up to his staggeringly assured technique.

Cho played two Beethoven sonatas, the Pathétique and Op. 109; Book II of Debussy’s Images; and the Chopin Sonata No. 3. The word of the evening was correct: everything was polished, orthodox, conservative, with not a hair out of place. Not every musician needs to have a passionate temperament, but this was as if Cho was still in competition mode: aware of being judged and anxious to not ruffle any feathers with too much personality. (He is the polar opposite of the flamboyant Lang Lang).

You can’t fault any part of Cho’s technique, which has deep reserves of power without aggression. The sound is exemplary, always round and attractive. There is nothing offensive or jarring about about any of his interpretive choices, But such unrelenting caution ends up being a little oatmeal.

Cho’s Pathétique sounded generic, especially when compared to Richard Raymond’s electrifying, fresh performance of this piece here two weeks ago. The Op. 109 was academic — pretty, but not profound. It’s a mystery how a pianist can play with so much velocity, yet so little fire.

Cho returned for the second half looser and more relaxed. The Debussy was the highlight of the recital. Here at last, Cho gave us some insight into his imagination and individuality. Cloches à travers les feuilles was luxuriantly shaded; Et la lune… beckoned through a soft, liquid haze. The spell was only broken by the jarring trill of, yes, a cell phone (why do the cursed things only ever go off in the quietest moments?)

As the Chopin Competition gold medallist, expectations were high for the composer’s Third Sonata. Cho has said the piece is new to his repertoire, and it did sound like he was still feeling his way through it musically (as with everything else he played, the notes were never a problem.) The first movement lacked structure and shape. Cho played one section and then another, with no strong connecting threads. The lyrical main theme of the third movement needed more sighing bel canto tenderness, while the finale was quite careful and reserved — I would have loved to see Cho really go for it in the coda, missed notes be damned. Interestingly, the scherzo was a glittering marvel, with the kind of bold panache and playfulness we had rarely seen all evening. It offered a tantalizing glimpse of the artist Cho will surely become with some more living outside the practice room.

As a charming encore, Cho played Schubert’s Moment Musical in F minor.

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Natasha Gauthier has been covering classical music in Canada and the US for more than 20 years. She was the classical critic at the Ottawa Citizen, and was one of the founding critics of Montreal's HOUR Magazine. She has served on the classical music and dance juries for the Governor General's Performing Arts Awards. You can also read her at her blog, Natasha has a BA in Journalism from Concordia University.