I will keep Chopin's music in my repertoire for my whole life – says Seong-Jin Cho in an interview with Marta Polanska

Seong-Jin Cho Photo by Marta Polanska


Marta Polanska: In the program book of Master Recital in Krakow your words about the 17th International Frederic Chopin Piano Competition were quoted: It was a great experience to participate in this competition. Winning the first prize is fulfilling my dreams.

Seong-Jin Cho: Yes, my dream came true because of this competition and I will play 50 concerts in the coming year, 2016. But now, I have another dream: to keep going like this to the end of my life. I really want to play good music like great masters: Krystian Zimerman, Grigorij Sokolov, Radu Lupu. I would like to achieve the level of such great pianists. 

Being a concert pianist you have to deal with stress. How do you overcome stage fright?

This is what I really want to know: How to get rid of my stress. Especially in the competition I was very nervous. During the performances my legs were shaking.

But the public had an impression that you were very calm. The headline „Seong-Jin Cho – everything under control” appeared in the competition newspaper „Chopin Courier”.

Yes, my face looked very calm, but my heartbeat was very fast.

You’re also the winner of other competitions: the International Fryderyk Chopin Competition for Young Pianists in Moscow (2008) and a piano competition in Hamamatsu, Japan (2009), as well as Third Prize winner at the Pyotr Tchaikovsky Competition in Russia (2011) and the Arthur Rubinstein in Tel Aviv (2014) and you have an experience with an audience from all over the world. One of the most important things for a concert pianist is to have a very good contact with the audience. Could you shortly characterize the audiences?

There are different types of audiences all over the world. In Japan the audience is very quiet and very sincere, in Korea very enthusiastic. I’ve recently played in London they’re very sincere and also quiet, in France the public is enthusiastic but less so than in Korea. In Poland the audience is very warm, in Russia it is very hot.

Once you’ve said that during the Chopin Competition the audience’s response was rather reserved because the public paid attention to every detail.

Yes. Of course during the competition 80% of the audience are critics. They’re making critics not enjoy the music. I feel more free playing the concert then during the competition.

You are the first Korean pianist ever to win the International Frederic Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw. You also won the Frederic Chopin Society Prize for the best performance of a Polonaise – the most characteristic Polish work. Chopin is considered to be the national composer of Poland and also among the most universally beloved of all composers. Which aspect of his music decides about this paradox?

Chopin has many sides that’s why, I think, Chopin is very special. I feel a little bit Slavic style in his music, also French style, and of course Polish, many styles. Nocturne is a little bit French and Waltz too, Polonaise and Mazurka absolutely Polish. When I played the Concerto I felt that some of the ornamentation is composed a little bit in a Slavic style. 

You’ve played the first Piano Concerto in the final stage of the 17th International Frederic Chopin Piano Competition. The third movement of this Concerto is Krakowiak. Have you ever seen this dance?

Yes. I’ve been to Krakow twice. It is my favourite city in Poland. Two years ago, when I had a concert in Manggha Museum of Japanese Art and Technology, during the Festival of Polish Music, I visited Wawel Castle, Main Market Square … It’s beautiful.

Did you have an opportunity to taste the specialties of Krakow?

Of course. I ate a pretzel (smile).

For the Master Recital in Krakow you chose the pieces from Chopin Competition’s repertoire. Most of the pieces are dark, e.g.: Nocturne in C minor op. 48 No. 1, Sonata in B minor Op. 35…

Actually my Chopin Competition’s repertoire included: Fantasy in F minor Op. 49, which is very dark, the second Ballade, that has a very dark final, Mazurkas op. 33 that are very sad …

Do you feel better in this kind of repertoire rather than a brilliant one?

I like both. I think that most of Chopin’s music is not dark but lonely and gloomy. 

Chopin is one of the most important composers for you.

Of course.

What does Chopin’s music mean to you?

Chopin wrote  99% of his music for piano and already for this reason he is a very special composer for me, like Mahler for conductors. Of course, I also want to play pieces of German, French … composers, but I will keep Chopin’s music in my repertoire for a whole life.

You are the heir to the great musical tradition associated with Olivier Messiaen through your professor in Paris, Michel Béroff, student of Yvonne Loriod. I am thinking particularly about your sound sensitivity and the art of touché. Which factor is decisive for you when you select a piano?

What is most important to me is sound. During the Chopin Competition those four pianos were great. Professional technicians did a wonderful job. The action was totally great. I listened to the sound, which was proper to Chopin’s music. In April, during the preliminary round, I played Yamaha, because at that time, Steinway didn’t have good technicians, but during the Competition, in October, Steinway sounded very properly to my repertoire of Chopin’s music, that’s why I chose Steinway.

On 6 November Deutsche Grammophon released your recording from the 17th International Frederic Chopin Piano Competition. As Frederic Chopin National Institute writes: The CD has shipped 100,000 units in just 5 weeks which makes it the top shipped classical album in the world in 2015! Will your next recording include the music of Chopin or other composers?

Yes, the next recording will include Chopin’s pieces, but maybe another one will be dedicated to a different composer.

Which composer would it be?

I have to think …

Thank you very much for the interview.

Thank you very much.

Interview in Korean language translated by Ellie Haeju Noh