The fresh-faced Korean piano virtuoso calls his latest album The Handel Project, soft-pedaling the fact that the centerpiece postdates Handel by 200 years. That would be Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, wherein the young Johannes Brahms takes up the gauntlet flung down by J. S. Bach in the Goldberg Variations and subsequently taken up to be flung down anew by Ludwig van Beethoven in 33 Variations On a Waltz By Anton Diabelli.
Video of Cho’s program in concert, presented without applause or interruption, was filmed on September 10, 2022 at the century-old Siemens Villa, in Berlin.The property’s name commemorates its second owner, Werner von Siemens, an eminent inventor, industrialist, and “hobbyist conductor” who in 1928 added a concert hall legendary for its acoustics. Situated in the city’s largest public park, the mansion came through two world wars miraculously unscathed.
As seen here, the music room looks spacious but spare to a fault. Whatever hand-picked listeners attended, they remain off camera and off mic. Cho presents himself quietly, in a charcoal suit and tee, his sleek jet-black hair styled neatly except for long, arty bangs that fall as they will. He sits down at the keyboard, goes through his playlist without interruption, makes a slight bow to the camera, and walks off, heels echoing on the parquet.
To judge by the closeups of his tapered hands and thoughtful face, the drone-style overheads and discreet traveling shots, the available floorspace must have been occupied mainly by a sizable camera crew. What you can’t miss is the Steinway namecheck emblazoned on the concert grand’s casing, soundboard, and key lid.
Cho sets the scene with two Handel keyboard suites, a segment that clocks in at 20 minutes and concludes with the brief air and five variations known as The Harmonious Blacksmith. Played as Cho plays it—on a contemporary instrument, with a contemporary sensibility informed by the lessons of period practice—that popular favorite serves as a heaven-sent bridge to the Brahms, an architectonic half-hour marvel that progresses from an aria to 25 variations and finally a fugue designed to bring concert audiences to their feet. Here, instead, the music continues with a pair of Handel miniatures, the second dreamily arranged by the pianist Wilhelm Kempff, a legendary Brahmsian of the mid–20th century.
“One sees what may still be done in the old forms when someone comes along who knows how to use them,” the 50-year-old Richard Wagner said when the 30-year-old Brahms played him the Handel Variations at what may have been their only encounter, on February 6, 1864. Given that Wagner was then in the throes of the contrapuntal, faux-antique Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg adds special weight to the comment. Cho’s exquisitely calibrated recital touches on the same point. In art, progress and reminiscence go hand in hand, and history is an illusion.
Seong-Jin Cho: The Handel Project is available on the Stage+ streaming service
Matthew Gurewitsch writes about opera and classical music for AIR MAIL.He lives in Hawaii