Since 1989, the Music Festival Bremen has been held for three weeks in late summer. The aim of the Festival founded by general manager Thomas Albert on the initiative of the Bremen Senate and leading partners from commerce is to organize special events providing „a programme that deliberately strives for stylistic diversity and breadth — while never straying from artistic quality as the top priority!” (www.musikfest-bremen.de) One of the primary venues for the Festival events in Bremen is the concert hall Die Glocke that Herbert von Karajan (1908 – 1989) counted among the three best concert halls in Europe.
As part of the 34th Music Festival Bremen, on September 5, 2023, Korean pianist Seong-Jin Cho – winner of the 17th International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw (2015) performed. For the recital program, the artist selected works by Joseph Haydn (1732 – 1809), Maurice Ravel (1875 – 1937) and Robert Schumann (1810 – 1856), which perfectly matched the festival’s program goals and the venue itself. The concert’s repertoire also gave the artist a wonderful opportunity to present the history of the instrument’s development, piano literature from the end of the 18th to the beginning of the 20th century, and, above all, his versatile pianistic abilities.
The first part of the recital was filled with compositions by Joseph Haydn and Maurice Ravel: Sonata in E minor Hob. XVI/34, perfectly combined with Ravel’s Miroirs with the miniature Menuet sur le nom d’Haydn composed by Ravel at the request of the Revue musicale mensuelle de la Société Internationale de Musique in connection with the 100th anniversary of Haydn’s death. Haydn’s work, which begins the recital, is the fourth piece of this genre that Haydn intended to be performed on the harpsichord or pianoforte. The Sonata composed in the late 1770s, seemingly technically easy sometimes poses considerable interpretation problems due to the fragmentation of the phrase (especially in the first movement). Seong-Jin Cho brilliantly led the musical narrative of the piece through an extremely singing approach to the melodic line supported by abundant, but not exaggerated pedaling (thus showing a pianistic, not harpsichord-like, approach to the piece). He consistently built tension with the help of expressive dynamic and sound differences (brilliantly showing the colors of the sound of individual piano registers), the proper selection of agogics and impeccable articulation. In the contrasting middle section of the Sonata, he attracted attention with his sophisticated technique of realizing an ornamental melody, already well known to us from his latest album The Handel Project (Deutsche Grammophon 2023). He played the final rondo entitled Innocentemente lightly and colorfully with extraordinary simplicity, highlighting the pure beauty of this musical composition, in which the bell motif discreetly appears.
The master of sound effects was the French composer Maurice Ravel, whose works complemented the first part of the recital. The Menuet, although dedicated to the memory of Haydn, is par excellence French both in terms of sound and texture. Ravel composed the work in 1909. A total of six composers were asked by the Revue musicale mensuelle de la Société Internationale de Musique to write a piece based on a sound motif illustrating Haydn’s name. The 54-bar miniature was performed by Seong-Jin Cho attaca as a prelude to the five-part cycle Miroirs by Ravel. When composing Miroirs, Ravel was inspired by a quote from the second scene of Act I of Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare: “the eye sees not itself, But by reflection, by some other things.” The individual parts of the cycle constitute Ravel’s objective sound illustration of the title scenes. Each of the five movements is dedicated to a fellow member of the French avant-garde artist group Les Apaches, which Ravel joined around 1900. The suite requires the utmost fineness and control over the instrument. Seong-Jin Cho has an excellent feel for the keyboard and wonderful technical capabilities that allow him to extract an extremely rich palette of sound colors from the piano. He showed his master Klangfarbenspiel already in the first part of the cycle Noctuelles (Night Moths), which is characterized by constant color and articulation changes as well as strong dynamic contrasts used by Ravel to musically illustrate the flapping wings of night moths. Also in Oiseaux tristes (Sad Birds) he wonderfully highlighted the differences in sound timbre between the musical motifs illustrating birds singing and the part corresponding to the image of a dark forest. The masterful sound illustration of a barge bobbing in the ocean waters in the third movement also showcased Seong-Jin Cho’s extraordinary sonic imagination. This part of Une barque sur l’océan (A Boat on the Ocean) was one of the two parts, along with Alborada, that Ravel decided to orchestrate (due to the richness of the sound colors), but he was not satisfied with this orchestration. The fourth part of the suite Alborada del gracioso (The Jester’s Aubade/ Morning Song of the Jester) is often cited as the best exemplification of the need for piano designers to invent a double escapement mechanism (Ravel composed on the piano of Sébastien Érard, who invented this mechanism). This is due to the accumulation of a large number of repetitions, imitations of the sound of castanets, as well as other extremely demanding technical difficulties (such as double glissandos), which are intended to illustrate the Spanish sound aura of the piece. Seong-Jin Cho performed the piece with the fiery energy typical of the work, perfectly emphasizing the characteristic rhythm of Ravel’s Alborada. With the part La vallée des cloches (The Valley of Bells) that crowned the cycle he wonderfully showed the spacious and extremely colorful sound of the bells, proving on the piano what Olivier Messiaen said about Ravel’s orchestration attempts: “There exists an orchestral kind of piano writing which is more orchestral then the orchestra itself and which, with a real orchestra it is impossible to realize.” (Arbie Orenstein Ravel, Man and Musician, page 74)
The second part of Seong-Jin Cho’s recital at Die Glocke was entirely filled with Symphonic Etudes, Op. 13 by Robert Schumann based on a theme by Baron von Fricken (of the 12 variations, 9 are based on this theme) and a Finale using a theme by Heinrich Marschner. The title of the cycle itself suggests the way the instrument is treated. Op. 13 is an innovative work of the composer both in terms of piano technique and the means of artistic expression used. The Symphonic Etudes, along with the Fantasy in C major and Toccata, are considered Schumann’s most difficult piano works. The form of the series has evolved over many years. The work was composed at the turn of 1834 and 1835, first published in 1837, and was revised several times. Seong-Jin Cho decided to add two so-called Posthumous variations (of the five rejected by Schumann and restored during the publishing process in 1890 in a supplement by Johannes Brahms) to the twelve Etudes. The form of the cycle he performed was as follows:
Theme – Andante
Etude I (Variation 1) – Un poco più vivo
Etude II (Variation 2) – Espressivo
Etude III – Vivace
Etude IV (Variation 3)
Etude V (Variation 4) – Scherzando
Etude VI (Variation 5) – Agitato
Posthumous Variation IV – Allegretto
Etude VII (Variation 6) – Allegro molto
Etude VIII (Variation 7) – Sempre marcatissimo
Posthumous Variation V – Moderato
Etude IX – Presto possibile
Etude X (Variation 8) – Sempre con energia
Etude XI (Variation 9) – Con espressione
Etude XII (Finale) – Allegro brillante (based on Marschner’s theme)
(The tempo and character markings of individual Etudes were quoted based on the content of the Klavierabend booklet on September 5, 2023 during the Music Festival Bremen, the tempo and character markings of the theme and Posthumous variations were quoted based on the Breitkopf & Härtel edition)
This composition of the cycle showed Seong-Jin Cho’s excellent logical sense of construction. Performing op. 13 by Schumann, the artist presented the full spectrum of pianistic possibilities, wonderfully emphasizing the extraordinary richness of colors and textures. He used a multi-colored sound, sometimes delicate, and in other places deep, saturated sound, thus emphasizing the variability of the moods of individual Etudes. Schumann’s daring Agitato (Etude VI) and the virtuosic Finale Allegro brillante warmed up the audience at Die Glocke, which rewarded the Korean pianist with a loud and long ovation. For the encore, Seong-Jin Cho performed: Warum? from the cycle Fantasiestücke op.12 (no. 3) by Robert Schumann and repeated Innocentemente from Joseph Haydn’s Sonata.
During his debut at the Music Festival Bremen, Seong-Jin Cho proved that he has all the qualities of a great complete musician.