Seong-Jin Cho’s airline may have lost the luggage carrying his concert suit on the way to Berkeley, but the world-class pianist was no less dazzling on the stage of Zellerbach Hall. Clad in a sheepish smile and a white button-up on the night of Dec. 8, Cho offered an apologetic explanation that sparked laughter and applause in equal measure, coated in excitement for his anticipated program.
While Cho’s accolades stretch far and wide, the 28-year-old musician is perhaps best known for staking his claim on First Prize at the 2015 Chopin International Competition in Warsaw, Poland. In his Berkeley debut, Cho seemed readier than ever to seize the night with another mesmerizing performance.
Though historically lauded for his Romantic repertoire, Cho opened with the Baroque flair of Handel’s “Suite in F major, HWV 427.” The luminous tone carved out by Cho’s ambling fingers spiraled from the pensive “Adagio” to the romping “Allegro” with tender sophistication, brewing poise in each of the piece’s polyphonic voicings. Methodical yet wondrous, the ponderous force of Cho’s rippling bass register married seamlessly to his vibrant treble — an arresting feat of technicality rendered most clearly in the suite’s closing fugue.
As the program progressed, Cho’s virtuosity lent itself to an undeniable intuition for euphonious balance and gymnastic precision. With lilting clarity, Handel’s melodies were Cho’s to mold in his “Suite in F minor, HWV 433,” at times inflating with measured pressure and at others exhaling with impossible lightness. The delicate, imperious coloring of the “Allemande” unraveled a courtly dance that galloped into the rollicking “Courante” as it hovered in the sweet spot between expression and technique.
Ending on a “Gigue” reeling with sprightly fire, Cho slipped steadily into Brahms’ “Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, Op. 24.” The composed demeanor of the opening “Aria” slowly gathered ornamentation as the piece walked the path of its 25 variations — startling into a jaunty, bright passage with spinning scales, thunderous bass transmuted into quiet murmurs as Cho’s laser-sharp focus pierced the unique character of each variation. Imbuing the piece’s tinkling notes and dogged drive with the intimidating lucidity of his articulation, his tonal brilliance maintained an impressive consistency.
In Cho’s four selections from Brahms’ “Eight Klavierstücke,” one could almost envision the Austrian mountainside of their conception. With a host of melodies fluttering between Cho’s satin-like pianissimos and surging staccatos, the capricious moods of each piece flowed freely from the stage. As the cascading force of “Capriccio in F-sharp minor” was tempered by the mirthful contemplations of “Capriccio in B minor,” “Intermezzo in B-flat major” intercepted teasingly with its unresolved key, and “Capriccio in C-sharp minor” rounded out the assortment. Tempting fury with alternating meters and dramatic polyrhythms, Cho’s arresting skill captured each of the piece’s tempestuous dimensions.
Schumann’s “Symphonic Etudes, Op. 13,” however, served as the program’s dramatic final course, flushed with both brooding chords and reverberating strength. From the grand to the gloomy to the gritty, Cho evinced an astounding range of musical expression. Between militant rhythms and furious passages, each mercurial musical pivot was grounded by Cho’s captivating verve and incendiary musical instinct.
As the crowd beckoned him back onstage with resounding applause and shouts of awe, Cho championed the giving season with a generous two encores. Though the honeyed tone and soft splendor of Handel’s “Minuet in G minor (arr. Wilhelm Kempff)” enraptured the hall, it was Cho’s second encore that courted a billowing cry of excitement from the audience with its first weighted forzato. Entrenched in the undulating notes of Chopin’s “Polonaise in A flat Major, Op. 53,” he blazed through the Polish dance with practiced ease, the electric scales and rotating trills ready to flare at his command. Even seven years after his momentous win in Warsaw, Cho’s reputation continued to precede him as he mingled the theater’s giddy silence with the robust passages of the “Heroic” polonaise.
With the eclipse of his last chord, Cho playfully waved goodnight to Zellerbach’s full house. Whether deftly dispensing Handel’s finespun melodies or brandishing might with his infamous aptitude for Chopin, the pianist imparted a searing sense of wonderment on his audience before making his final bows to a near-universal standing ovation.