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[Herald Interview] Cho Seong-jin returns as ‘Wanderer’

Amid pandemic, pianist says, ‘We need music in life’

Pianist Cho Seong-jin, 26, is due to release a new album titled “The Wanderer” on May 8. As the fourth album to be released under the Deutsche Grammophon label, it includes Schubert’s Fantasy in C major, D, 760, known as the Wanderer Fantasy; Berg’s Piano Sonata, Op. 1; and Liszt’s Piano Sonata in B minor, S 178.
Pianist Cho Seong-jin (Christoph Kostlin/DG)
Pianist Cho Seong-jin (Christoph Kostlin/DG)
“The Wanderer” (Universal Music)
“The Wanderer” (Universal Music)

The central work in the album -- as is hinted in the title -- is the Wanderer Fantasy written by Franz Schubert in 1822. The piano sonata is known for its technical difficulty.

“The technical difficulty is immense. … But hiding that difficulty is the hardest. It is important to hide the technical difficulty for it to be understood as beautiful, dramatic or lyrical by the audience,” Cho said in an email interview ahead of the album release.

Cho is especially attached to the piece, having first performed the work in late 2018. Since then, the Wanderer Fantasy has been part of Cho’s performances from time to time.

“After being onstage multiple times with the Wanderer Fantasy piece, there is this comfort now. As this work is distinguished by its large scope of imagination, I focused on highlighting the different characteristics of each movement,” he said.

“In the Romantic period, wandering seemed to have been an important keyword (for artists), and especially for Schubert, too,” Cho said. “Artists, pianists and musicians do travel a lot, even though they might not exactly be classified as wanderers.”

Cho was speaking for himself. Having lived abroad since 2012, Cho said he often felt as if he had no real home. He traveled back and forth between South Korea and Paris for years. In recent years, he has been based in Berlin, but he often visits other cities for performance engagements.

“It is my job to move around and play. These days, I feel like I’m at home when I’m in Berlin. Even hotels are comfortable, like home,” the pianist said. “I finally came to the conclusion that wherever I am is my home.”

Like many other artists, Cho had to cancel most of his performances in recent months due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The musician performed on a virtual stage March 28 with German baritone Matthias Goerne and played Schubert live for International Piano Day.

“Goerne was the one who came up with the Schubert live idea. In the last five years, I have not taken time off like this,” Cho said, referring to his Chopin International Competition win in 2015. Ever since he rose to stardom after the competition, Cho has been very busy performing around the world.

“Goerne, whose career goes back more than 30 years, says it is his first too. It was very awkward. I felt like I should do something,” he said. “It was my first time (livestreaming) without an audience. It was awkward at first. But later (in the performance), I felt the energy of a concert.”

Cho is realizing the importance of music more than ever before.

“I have been listening to more music recently, and watching films too,” he said. “I have learned music is essential to our lives, not just classical music. We listen to a lot of music at a time like this, when we have nothing else to do, or need comfort or simply want to enjoy something. We need music in life.”

“I hope to be alive and healthy,” said Cho when asked about his hopes for the future when he is in his 40s and 50s.

“I hope I will still play the piano. Not everything goes as planned in life,” the young musician said. “I need luck, while being optimistic and making efforts at the same time.”

Cho is planning a nationwide tour of Korea in July. The Seoul engagement is set to take place July 7-8 at the Seoul Arts Center in central Seoul. The program will include pieces from the upcoming album.

By Im Eun-byel (