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Seong-Jin Cho, the young South Korean winner of the 2015 International Chopin Piano Competition, first recorded two CDs of that composer’s music (DG 4795332 and 94795941). Now we witness a turn to the considerable challenges of Claude Debussy, whose music requires artistic maturity above all. When lively technical demands are present, as in ‘Mouvement’ or especially ‘Golliwog’s Cakewalk’, Cho conquers them with fluent panache. He is naturally drawn to extroverted display pieces such as ‘Poissons d’or’. Cho conveys a sincere interest in the orchestral timbres inherent in these keyboard works, but a somewhat offhand or cool approach keeps the results from being moving or illuminating.

Children’s Corner, played without the requisite loving tenderness, is rather chilly and distant. A curiously indifferent blankness, almost absent-mindedness, continues in ‘Serenade for the Doll’. It seems unjust to expect a 23-year-old, however fleet-fingered, to convey the profundity of this music, which must communicate an inner philosophy that only time can mature. Younger performers can interpret Debussy rewardingly, but not if their playing is just superficially pretty, like the ‘Reflets dans l’eau’ here; or they achieve simplicity but not depth with a certain stilted, forlorn doggedness, as in Cho’s ‘Hommage à Rameau’.

A somehow trivial and dithering Suite Bergamasque confirms that this pianist is accomplished enough to be granted time to mature into the Debussy repertoire, rather than rushing into it prematurely. His performance of the same programme in 20 or 30 years’ time will surely be more emotive and perceptive. Until then, Grieg and Scarlatti, among others, beckon.

BENJAMIN IVRY Read the full review on Agora Classica


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