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The Wanderer
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Wanderer Fantasy in C major, D760 [21:47]
Alban BERG (1885-1935)
Piano Sonata, Op.1 [11:45]
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Piano Sonata in B minor, S178 [34:23]
Seong-Jin Cho (piano)
rec. 2019, Siemens-Villa, Berlin; Friedrich-Ebert-Halle (Liszt)

Sharing his thoughts, in a video trailer, to his latest recording, the Korean pianist Seong-Jin Cho sets out his stall, explaining that this is his first 'concept' album, as opposed to the single composer releases which went before. He goes on to highlight the similarities between the three works featured. Schubert's Wanderer Fantasy and Liszt's B minor Sonata are both composed in sonata form, without breaks between the movements. Likewise, the Berg Sonata is a single movement structure. So, unity is established, and the works form a programme interesting yet diverse.

Cho’s mastery of Schubert's Wanderer Fantasy is impressive by any standards. A virtuoso masterpiece, the composer's most technically demanding work for piano, the performance combines beguiling lyricism with technical prowess. Much of its success lies in the convincing way Cho's surfs Schubert's poetic modulations with natural ease, and savours the mellifluous lyricism. The slow movement incorporates the theme of a song the composer penned in 1816 to a text by Georg Philipp Schmidt. The Wanderer song speaks of gloom, isolation, melancholy and loneliness, and of all the performances of this work I've encountered, none captures the essence and mood of Schmidt's text to quite the extent as Cho’s does. I love the pacing and the inevitability with which the variations unfold. The finale breaks forth with high intensity, setting the seal on a breathtaking performance. For me, this performance stands shoulder to shoulder with my two preferred versions by Pollini and Richter.

It was Glenn Gould's recording that fired Cho's imagination for an exploration of the Berg Sonata, and his performance reveals a clear understanding of the complex structure of the piece and its overriding direction. The dissonant harmonies and complex textures are imaginatively realized.  Cho has a real feel for the music's ebb and flow, and the subtle climaxes make their mark with effect. He also captures the moments of fine-drawn introspection. The pianist very often programmes the Berg and Liszt Sonatas together in recital, performing them without a break.

Liszt made his own transcription of Schubert's Wanderer Fantasy for piano and orchestra, and this may have inspired him to write his B minor Sonata, such are the parallels between the two works. Cho alternates volatility with moments of tender serenity. He skillfully controls the transitions instinctively and with great musicality. With plenty of drama and wide dynamic variance, this is an edge-of-seat performance and rivals the very best in a crowded field. Yet, it won't displace my favorites - Horowitz's 1932 HMV recording and Argerich's 1971 blockbuster account for DG.

Seong-Jin Cho rose to prominence after clinching First Prize in the 2015 International Chopin Piano Competition. After the win came a DG contract, and this is his fifth release for the label. His Debussy and Mozart recordings I’ve previously reviewed (review ~ review). As each new release hits the market, the pianist appears to go from strength to strength, and he's certainly becoming a strong presence and one of the most versatile musicians on today's circuit. The DG engineers have captured the pianist in superb sound. This is top drawer pianism, in every respect.

Stephen Greenbank

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