Pianist Seong-Jin Cho returned to The Conrad Sunday in a mesmerizing, bravura solo recital. Last year for the La Jolla Music Society, he accompanied baritone Matthias Goerne in a sublime lieder recital that only suggested the extent of his breathtaking artistry at the keyboard.Cho began his Sunday program with Haydn’s E Minor Sonata, Hob.XVI:34, a compact, understated sonata that he offered with supple technical precision, but deceptively understated passion. A subtle wave of his hand cued the audience that applause between his selections was both unnecessary and gauche, and to my surprise, the Conrad audience complied with aplomb. Goerne and Cho made a similar request at their 2022 La Jolla concert, and that audience also complied.
To prepare us for his commanding traversal of Maurice Ravel’s Miroirs, Cho played the composer’s obscure “Minuet sur le nom d’Haydn,” a charming puzzle of a piece built on a five-note theme cloaked in gossamer Impressionist harmonies.
Ravel’s radical approach to structure and his bold harmonic vocabulary made his 1905 five-movement suite Miroirs perplexing to most of his musical colleagues, especially those to whom he dedicated each movement. Because of each movement’s title we expect programmatic depictions: fluttering moths, the call of a blackbird, waves on the ocean, a lively Andalusian seguidilla, and ringing church bells. But Ravel’s sophisticated exploitation of the piano’s sonic resources and his breathtaking layers of sound transcend such simplistic depictions. Cho’s opulent textures and sweeping, extravagant phrasing immersed The Conrad with orchestral sonic prowess, an appropriate artistic decision since the orchestrated versions of these colorful movements are usually better known that the original piano versions.
Among Cho’s manifold delights in Miroirs: his ecstatic waves that became tempestuous without losing their shimmer in “Une barque sur l’ocean,” a rollicking Spanish street scene with fierce dancing in “Alborada del gracioso,” and the impassioned drive beneath the ethereal textures of “La vallée des cloches.”
To balance the Ravel in his program’s second half, Cho selected three Petrarch Sonatas from Franz Liszt’s Années de pèlerinage capped by his daunting Dante Sonata. Sonetto 47, Sonetto 104, and Sonetto 123 presented Cho the opportunity to unfold graceful, cantabile melodies clad in his exquisitely tailored sonorities. His Dante Sonata proved rapturous beyond expectation, its acute demands revealing and undersocring the startling might of his highly polished yet formidable technique.
Cho’s program also included a Mozart rarity, the Adagio in B Minor, K. 540, which he interpreted with the spontaneity and freedom of a performer improvising on the spot. It was not without a certain amount of charm, but it is no surprise this short work is rarely programmed.
His encore was the familiar Chopin Nocturne in E-flat Major.
This recital was presented by the La Jolla Music Society on Sunday, December 3, 2023, at the Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center.