Festival Music

Seong-Jin Cho

Queen’s Hall

Martin Kershaw

three stars

STILL just 23, Seong-Jin Cho already has the enviable resume of a performer twice his age, and a highly successful one at that. A roster of competition successes, appearances with most of the major orchestras, an exclusive contract with Deutsche Grammophon – it’s a stunning list of achievements. So why did his performance here leave me unconvinced?

I confess to an aversion to performers taking (to my ear at least) excessive liberties with phrasing and timing. It’s a particular issue with Romantic repertoire, but can occur across the classical spectrum, especially when the work in question is well-known. I have a problem with it because I feel it ultimately does the music a disservice – mangling and distorting it away from its origin. Seong-Jin Cho does it all the time. Granted, the Chopin Ballades undeniably benefit from some affectation, but it was simply too much – hands were out of sync when they shouldn’t have been, inexplicable accelerandos and ritardandos destroyed the pulse, crucial landings got lost in the shuffle. Worse, he subjected the two Beethoven Sonatas in the first half to a similarly cavalier treatment. Too mannered, too affected and ultimately undermining the music’s integrity. The Adagio in the "Pathetique" all but fell apart, and elsewhere faster passages lost direction amid slippery time-keeping.

Let me conclude with some positives. This is a pianist with a remarkable technique, rendering impenetrable forests of notes with clarity and confidence, dispatching fiendishly difficult music with confidence and aplomb. He also clearly has genuine passion for the material – there is no disguising that kind of emotional involvement. But at the moment it’s style over substance – let’s put substance back in charge.