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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Images I [16:19]
Images II [14:53]
Children’s Corner [17:07]
Suite Bergamasque [18:13]
L’isle joyeuse [6:15]
Seong-Jin Cho (piano)
rec. 2017, Siemens-Villa, Berlin

The 23 year old South Korean pianist Seong-Jin Cho, winner of the 2015 International Chopin Piano Competition, appears to be taking the music world by storm. With a DG contract and two stunning Chopin recordings under his belt, he now turns his attention to Debussy. Following his prestigious win, he chose to study in Paris with Michel Béroff at the Paris Conservatoire. Living in the capital has nurtured a love of French culture, so it's no surprise that he has chosen Debussy for his new album. His admiration for the composer's music goes back to his childhood when he programmed Children's Corner in his very first public recital aged eleven. He includes the six-movement suite in this recording. Paris has provided the opportunity for the pianist to spend time in the art galleries perusing Impressionist paintings, and he’s discovered parallels between the way artists capture the reflection of light on water and the myriad tonal shades in Debussy's music.

Attesting to the scrupulous attention Seong-Jin Cho brings to his performances, I was interested to read that he carefully chose the Steinway for this recording. His requirements were a bright and light tone, with less reverberation and not brilliantly metallic, adding "It was important for me to be able to produce very delicate and quiet sounds that retain their delicacy and range of colour even when played pianissimo".

"It's an absolute masterpiece ... incredibly atmospheric and highly poetic" is how Cho describes the Images cycle, and atmosphere and poetry are the compelling qualities with which he invests these six glorious pieces. His achievement of colour is breathtaking, with the hues emerging iridescent and luminous. His meticulous pedalling ensures there's no smudging of sonorities, everything is marked by clarity and lucidity. In Reflets dans l’eau the water ripples with suppleness and fluidity. Harking back to Rameau's 1737 Castor and Pollux, Hommage à Rameau is nicely paced, never lagging, with a nobility and poise. Mouvement swirls with pristine clarity of articulation and, in the closing bars, I love how the sound just evaporates. The bells of Cloches a travers les feuilles ring out incandescently, and Poissons d’or is notable for its shimmering delicacy.

"To my dear Chou-Chou, with the tender apologies of her father for what is to follow." Thus, Debussy inscribed the dedication of his six-movement suite Children’s Corner to his daughter. Tragically she was to die from diphtheria only a year after the composer's own death from cancer in 1918. Despite their title they're not beginner's pieces by any means. Rather they evoke images of childhood. Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum makes reference to Clementi's same titled exercises, which the child painstakingly practises. Cho's glides over the keys with sparkling fluency. In The Snow is Dancing, filigree finger-work paints glittering ice crystals. Golliwog's Cakewalk carries you along with its wit and buoyant rhythmical syncopations. The richly impressionistic Suite bergamasque contains the famous Clair de lune. Cho elegantly sculpts the sublime melody over gleaming arpeggios. It certainly doesn't get much better than this. The affable Passepied is technically assured and life affirming.

Cho ends with L'îsle joyeuse, inspired by the French painter Jean-Antoine Watteau's "The Embarkation for Cythera". It's a gripping reading, by any standards, orchestral in conception and underpinned by rhythmic intensity.

Seong-Jin Cho’s is a natural Debussy player, his myriad pastel shades and artful musicianship are arresting. This is some of the finest Debussy playing I’ve ever encountered.

Stephen Greenbank

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