Review: Pianist Seong-Jin Cho Dazzles at Symphony Center

In a dazzling display of youthful energy and vigor, Korean pianist Seong-Jin Cho delivered a masterful, note-perfect recital before a nearly sold out crowd at Symphony Center on Sunday. He showed remarkable intensity and resolve as he worked through a lengthy program of German composers George Frideric Handel, Johannes Brahms, and Robert Schumann, and a modern composer from Soviet Russia, Sofia Gubaidulina.

Although still in his 20s, Cho displayed the musical maturity of a pianist twice his age. His touch was refined and demeanor intense, and a very powerful sound came from a pianist of small-medium stature.

Baroque composer Handel inspired the first half of the concert, first with his Suite in E-major, HMW 430, and later with Brahms’ Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, Op. 24. Sandwiched in between was a modern Chaconne by Gubaidulina.

The Handel Suite ends with what Handel called an Air, which is a famous set of variations. The printed program drew a comparisons between these variations and the Chaconne that ends Johann Sebastian Bach’s Partita for Violin Solo no. 2 in d-minor. A chaconne is a set of variations based on a short melodic line and corresponding chord pattern. It was a brilliant programming stroke to call on Gubaidulina’s modern version of this very early musical form.

The opening of Handel’s Suite is light and airy, and Cho’s fingers sounded like they were floating on clouds. In a very typical Handel fashion, there are constant turns and trills within the melodic lines, and Cho nailed them all. Being a longer, more involved movement, the Air allowed him to demonstrate the wide dexterity in his touch.

Next came crashing discordant chords that began the Gubaidulina Chaconne. This sort of composition is always centered by the theme, which, in this case presents an interesting wrinkle because of its atonality. The theme goes in many directions, and it was sometimes hard to tell when it started and ended. Gubaidulina occasionally drifts into tonal territory, and several variations feature counterpoint. Cho’s deft playing captured all of these differences. 

Seong-Jin Cho. Photo by Todd Rosenberg.

Handel figures prominently in the final piece in the first half, Brahms’ mammoth set of variations and fugue on a theme by that composer. This work calls on every tool at a pianist’s disposal and Cho certainly knows how to use them. Rapid runs sounded clear and precise, and intense chords were powerful. He was especially good at bringing out the different voices in the fugue.

A different side of Brahms appeared after intermission. Some of his most memorable piano music can be found in the several sets of miniatures he wrote throughout his career. In my humble opinion, Opus 76 is the best of them. These pieces show off Brahms’ understanding of the romantic impulse, tending to highlight moods instead of fireworks. Playing four of the eight pieces in the opus, Cho showed off the care and comfort that came to be expected of his playing.  

The final work on the program was another extended set of variations, this time by Brahms’ mentor, Robert Schumann. His Symphonic Etudes, Op. 13, extends the form beyond the traditional approach because it pauses the variations to include etudes, or studies. The version Cho played included material added posthumously after Schumann’s death. In pulling this off, Cho exhibited intense focus as the sounds washed over the listeners. He was completely absorbed into the magic coming from his fingers.

When the final chords of the Schumann sounded, the audience reaction was immediate. I’m not one to stand after every performance, but this one deserved a standing ovation. After four curtain calls, Cho broke into more Handel for an encore, Minuet in G Minor, No. 4, HWV 434, which was arranged by Kempff. But the audience was not finished with the applause. Three ovations later Cho returned to the piano to play “Alborada del gracioso,” which is from Maurice Ravel’s five-piece work, Miriors. After that, he waved good-bye.

This concert was part of the Symphony Center Presents series. Their 2022-23 season continues this Sunday with Portuguese pianist Maria João Pires playing more great music by Schumann and two of Beethoven’s three piano sonatas in c-minor on Sunday, May 28, at 3pm. For ticket information, click here.

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Louis Harris
Louis Harris

A lover of music his whole life, Louis Harris has written extensively from the early days of punk and alternative rock. More recently he has focused on classical music, especially chamber ensembles. He has reviewed concerts, festivals, and recordings and has interviewed composers and performers. He has paid special attention to Chicago’s rich and robust contemporary art music scene. He occasionally writes poetry and has a published novel to his credit, 32 Variations on a Theme by Basil II in the Key of Washington, DC. He now lives on the north side of Chicago, which he considers to be the greatest city in the country, if not the world.