Chopin: Preludes Op. 28. Nocturne in C minor Op. 48/1; Piano Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor Op. 35; Polonaise in A flat major Op. 53. Seong-Jin Cho, piano, winner of the 17th International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition, Warsaw, 2015. DG 4795332. Total Time: 72:52.
These performances were recorded live in Warsaw just this past October. Isn’t it amazing that a record company can get its product to store shelves or warehouses within a matter of weeks? This kind of efficiency has been standard practice for years with the Vienna Philharmonic’s New Year’s concerts. The Sony Classical CD of the January 1st, 2016 performance, for example, will be available on January 22 – a mere three weeks after the actual event in the Musikverein.
The Chopin Piano Competition, held every five years, remains a prestigious event. Any pianist would be proud to say that he or she had placed in “the Chopin.” The following list of past winners includes some of the world’s greatest pianists: Witold Malcuzynski (3rd – 1937), Bella Davidovich (1st – 1949), Vladimir Ashkenazy (2nd – 1955), Maurizio Pollini (1st -1960), Martha Argerich (1st – 1965), Garrick Ohlsson (1st ) and Mitsuko Uchida (2nd ) in 1970, Krystian Zimerman (1st – 1975), Yundi (1st – 2000), and Daniil Trifonov (3rd – 2010).
How does the most recent winner, South Korean pianist Seong-Jin Cho, stack up against his illustrious predecessors? There is no question that he is a fine pianist – he has already been a prize-winner in several other major competitions and played with many of the world’s best orchestras – but it remains to be seen whether or not he can maintain a noteworthy career. The list of past Chopin Piano Competition prize-winners also includes pianists who are today all but forgotten: do the names Imre Ungar, Barbara Hesse-Bukowska, Dina Joffe or Marc Laforet mean anything to you?
It is unfortunate that one of the major works on this CD, Chopin’s Preludes Op. 28 was featured in two outstanding performances issued – also by Deutsche Grammophon – in 2015. A performance by Grigory Sokolov recorded live at the 2008 Salzburg Festival appeared early last year (DG 479 4342), and more recently DG released an outstanding version by Yundi (DG 481 1910). In my opinion, the Sokolov is almost in a category by itself for its beauty and its almost uncanny command of rubato, while the Yundi CD is a reminder that, while less charismatic than his contemporary Lang Lang, Yundi remains a mature artist of substance. Seong-Jin Cho’s playing, on the other hand, didn’t impress me for its virtuosity, grace, or poetry.
Incidentally, the runner-up to Seong-Jin Cho at the 2015 Chopin Competition was the brilliant Canadian pianist Charles Richard-Hamelin. Analekta has already released an excellent all-Chopin CD (AN2 9127) featuring Richard-Hamelin, a young artist clearly on the verge of a major career.
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