Just a few days after the Canadian pianist Bruce Liu took first prize in the 18th international Chopin competition in Warsaw, the winner of the last competition, in 2015, made a rare appearance in London. There was a long queue for returns at the Wigmore Hall for the recital by the South Korean Seong-Jin Cho, evidence of the huge international following he has built up since that success.
Cho made his recital debut in London the year after his victory, a performance that, for all its brilliance, left a rather mixed impression, suggesting that as an interpreter he was still not quite the finished article. Then, he devoted his entire recital to the composer who had brought him such instant fame; this time, Chopin took up only the second half of the programme. Before that, there was an opportunity to hear how Cho’s superb technique might be applied to other composers, in this case to Janáček and Ravel, and whether, five years on, he has really matured as an artist.
The opening work, Janáček’s sonata From the Street, offered few clues, just a reminder of what a beautifully refined sound Cho can produce; otherwise his performance remained stoically objective, holding this memorial work at a distance, as if it was a precious object. Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit is more obvious virtuoso fare, and Cho responded accordingly. The waters in which the nymph cavorted in the opening Ondine may have been distinctly icy, and the tolling bell in Le Gibet sounded rather less than macabre, but the final Scarbo darted and glittered with real Lisztian bravura.
If those works revealed rather less about Cho’s musical personality than hoped, then the Chopin that followed – the four Scherzos – provided a reminder of the best qualities of his playing, but also its shortcomings. The ferocious speed at which he launched the B minor Scherzo – just because he could play it that fast, one felt – reduced some passages to gibberish; the opening of the B flat minor seemed almost perfunctory and the drama of the glorious transition to its recapitulation underplayed. There was never any doubt of Cho’s technical command, but significantly it was the final, E major Scherzo, easily the least complicated emotionally in the set, that showed him as his best.