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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor, K.466 [30:58]
Piano Sonata No. 3 in B flat major, K.281 [13:43]
Piano Sonata No. 12 in F major, K.332 [19:05]
Seong-Jin Cho (piano)
Chamber Orchestra of Europe/Yannick Nézet-Séguin
rec. 2018, Baden-Baden Festspielhaus

In 2015 the South Korean pianist Seong-Jin Cho clinched a victory in the Chopin Competition, securing First Prize. Four years previously he had taken third place in the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, choosing Mozart's D minor, K.466 as one of his concertos in the final. So, having lived with the work for several years, this music is in his blood. Yet, his love of the composer goes back to his childhood, when he used to spend many hours listening to the operas. The contrasting emotions and feelings he found there readily translate into the drama and passion that underpins this concerto, one of only two Mozart set in a minor key from a total of twenty-seven. Cho is irresistibly drawn to the operatic nature of the score: - "His music is always like singing and like opera, so often the melodic line has to be rather like bel canto".

The D minor Piano Concert K.466 is one of the best loved and most performed of the cycle. Written in Vienna in 1785 and premièred by the composer himself, it breaks new ground in terms of emotional range. Stormy, urgent and tempestuous certainly characterizes the outer movements. Its dark, brooding narrative anticipates Don Giovanni which was to come two years later.  Nézet-Séguin sets the scene perfectly in the first movement's opening tutti, which is brooding and dramatic. The tempo is never allowed to sag. Cho's elegantly shaped phrasing and refined playing are evident from the start in the understated first piano entry. Throughout he delivers beautiful, clear enunciated lines.  There's a tangible rapport between pianist and conductor. Indeed, the pianist admired  Nézet-Séguin's Mozart conducting when he first heard him direct a performance of La clemenza di Tito in Baden Baden in 2017, finding his musicianship sensitive and his interpretations colourful. Cho uses Beethoven's cadenza in this movement.  The central Romance is tender and expressive, and the anguished middle section is approached operatically. The finale contrasts despair with moments of elation. 

The Chamber Orchestra of Europe play with their trademark flawless ensemble, infectious enthusiasm and warmth, with Nézet-Séguin achieving an impressive lucidity of orchestral textures.

Likewise Cho has a natural way with the composer's piano sonatas, and he's chosen two to complete this disc. The playing is stylish, intelligently approached and imaginatively rendered. Articulation is clean, crisp and precise, especially in the virtuosic tour-de-force which is the finale of K.332 - sheer brilliance. The slow movement of the F major is contoured with ravishing delicacy, all the better for the imaginative ornamentation and nuance Cho employs. This is playing of authority and distinction, and sits in the same class as that of Brendel, Uchida, Schiff, Pires and the lesser lauded Karl Engel.

Back in February I reviewed the pianist’s Debussy album, which turned out to be one of my Recordings of the Year. It’s obvious to me that Cho has the Midas touch, and this latest Mozart offering similarly impresses me very much. It will certainly be a strong contender for next year’s choices.

Stephen Greenbank

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