06 October 2017 (Toronto, ON) - In his latest recording, set for international release on November 17 via Deutsche Grammophon/Universal Music Canada, the country’s leading music company, 23-year-old South Korean pianist Seong-Jin Cho presents an all-Debussy programme. Debussy follows Cho’s two best-selling Chopin recordings.
It is entirely fitting that Seong-Jin Cho, winner of the 2015 International Chopin Piano Competition, should now turn to Debussy. Towards his life’s close, the French composer edited the piano works of Chopin, an experience that reignited his creativity, opening his heart to music he had loved since childhood. In turn, Cho’s connection to Debussy runs deep. He performed “Golliwogg’s Cake-walk” from Children’s Corner as part of his first public recital at the age of eleven, and his passion for the composer developed in parallel with his exploration of Chopin. He was therefore delighted to have the opportunity of commemorating the centenary of Debussy’s death, which falls in March 2018, with his own tribute.
Since childhood, Cho has felt many affinities with Debussy and he was keen to mark the centenary in his own style. The new album features both books of Images, each comprising three pieces of breathtaking imagination, in company with Children’s Corner and Suite Bergamasque, the latter including the hugely popular “Clair de lune”. Rounding things off in jubilant fashion is the beautiful “L’Isle joyeuse”.
“I have always loved Debussy’s music, but my feeling for it has deepened during my studies with Michel Béroff at the Paris Conservatoire,” Cho recalls. “Michel never presses me to accept his ideas on interpretation, which would be so easy for such a great master of Debussy’s music. His lessons are like meetings in which we discuss my playing, talk about music and art, and allow things to develop naturally. It’s a process of mutual understanding with Michel occasionally making suggestions about something that I might consider changing. Because he has such a profound connection to Debussy, he asks questions that can open your mind and ears to new possibilities.”
Seong-Jin Cho moved to Paris five years ago to study with Béroff. “Everything is very centralized in France,” he observes when asked about how he chose his new home city. “Paris is the undisputed cultural centre. I was convinced that I could get to know about European culture there.” Living and studying in Paris, he adds, has brought him closer to Debussy’s world, the places he knew and their spirit. “Whether visiting the Musée d’Orsay and Musée de l’Orangerie almost every day for a year, looking at Monet’s waterlilies and other Impressionist paintings, or just walking through the city at different times and in different seasons – it all offers insights into the atmosphere and colour of Debussy’s music.”
Although the Paris Conservatoire moved into its present home after Debussy’s student days there, its close links with the composer inspired Cho. He read widely about the man, his music and the contexts in which both were shaped. “This connection with a composer’s milieu is very important to me,” he comments. “It helped me find ways into Debussy’s mind, to discover impressions of his creativity and feel as much of the energy and invention that went into his works as possible. I feel a similar closeness here to Chopin who lived in Paris for almost half his life.”
Debussy’s innovative music replaced old rules of harmony and melodic writing with new sounds and radical ideas, fresh timbres and beguiling tone colours. Schools of composition and fashions in art meant nothing to him – instead, he was moved by his strong faith in individualism, open to influences outside the mainstream of European culture and opposed to Wagner’s domination of French musical life in the late 1800s.
Cho’s album begins with music that sounds as if it could have existed for all eternity, despite bearing the hallmarks of what its composer described as “the most recent discoveries of harmonic chemistry.” The enigmatic opening of “Reflets dans l’eau” from Images I sets the mood for the pianist’s tribute to one of the last century’s most original creative minds. He goes on to perform the remaining works of the two books of Images, bringing out every subtle nuance of music that demands true virtuosity. The Children’s Corner suite offers inventiveness, fantasy and touches of humour followed by the elegant Suite bergamasque, at whose heart lies the haunting “Clair de lune”. Rounding off proceedings is L’Isle joyeuse whose atmospheric, energetic writing makes it the ideal finale to this homage to Debussy.
It was, however, the stillness and concentration of so much of the composer’s piano music, rarely disturbed by forceful dynamic markings, that directed Seong-Jin Cho to choose a Steinway concert grand specially set up to convey the subtlest shifts of sound colour. “Debussy’s sound, for me, is about light and shade,” the pianist observes. “He understood how silence is the ground from which music grows and that musical sounds move in and out of silence. I wanted a piano that allowed me to slip from sound into silence and back again, without marking hard boundaries between the two. It’s so important to get this right in Debussy, who had a limitless concept of what sound could be. That’s why I was delighted to find an instrument with the lightness and flexibility of touch to do that.”