Seong-Jin Cho
Seong-Jin Cho | Credit: Harald Hoffmann

When you reach a certain stature as an artist, you no longer have to worry about proving yourself. Korean-born pianist Seong-Jin Cho, who catapulted to international fame after winning the first prize at the prestigious Chopin Competition in 2015, played a victorious Berkeley debut at Cal Performances on Thursday night. He performed with the relaxed security of a star who easily sold out Zellerbach Auditorium and had audience members practically jumping out of their seats to hear him play.

The program of Handel, Brahms, and Robert Schumann was something of a departure for Cho; these composers from the German tradition present different challenges than the ever-lyrical, naturally pianistic Chopin, with whom the performer made his name. Although Cho played with self-assurance and panache throughout, the result was, interpretively, a mixed bag. In the lengthy variation sets by Brahms and Schumann, the architecture was often lost in a wash of dramatic gestures that felt ill-suited to the music at hand.

Seong-Jin Cho
Seong-Jin Cho | Credit: Christoph Köstlin/Deutsche Grammophon

The concert’s design was economical and clever: two suites by Handel (HWV 427 and HWV 433) led naturally to Brahms’s Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, Op. 24. Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes, yet another demanding set of variations, concluded the program.

Perhaps surprisingly, the Handel suites were the highlight of the recital. Cho showed off a velvety tone that enveloped the listener in a serene, dreamlike world. His trills were impeccably executed, and Handel’s perpetually moving fast sections allowed the pianist to show off his effortless technique.

Cho is by no means a specialist in Baroque performance practice, and indeed his performance shone with a patina of Romantic expressivity. But he remained admirably restrained throughout, avoiding the sustain pedal in deference to the technique of early keyboards. In the fugues, he generously emphasized the subjects each time they appeared, achieving impressive contrapuntal clarity. This was truly a remarkable performance, and we can only hope that Cho records some Baroque music in the future.

Seong-Jin Cho
Seong-Jin Cho | Credit: Christoph Köstlin/Deutsche Grammophon

Unfortunately, in the transition from Handel to Brahms, the program seemed to lose some of its tasteful restraint. Cho played the theme of Brahms’s variation set — which is lifted wholesale from another Handel suite — almost as a parody of stiff-lipped decorum; his initial introspection was gone, replaced by empty flamboyance. In some ways, this approach makes sense; the Handel theme, constructed from simple, basic elements, is like an empty vessel that Brahms subjects to every permutation imaginable. Nevertheless, a variation set, no matter how kaleidoscopic, should never be treated as an assemblage of character pieces. Though his joy was magnetic, Cho took a rough-and-tumble approach to this variation set, overlooking the finely wrought detail of the composition. He excelled in the more subdued variations, where he was able to capture a touching tranquility, but in more bombastic movements, particularly those leading up to the final fugue, there was frantic tumult instead of a more desirable stentorian grandeur.

Brahms’s infrequently heard Op. 76 piano pieces followed and were played with lovely delicacy, and Cho’s ability to produce a burnished singing tone was on full display. These selections are more straightforwardly Romantic than the eclectic variation set, which might explain Cho’s sense of ease with them. The Capriccio in B Minor has a jauntily macabre, carnivalesque quality interlaced with joyful, Chopinesque outbursts; it was a hearty delight. The Intermezzo in B-flat Major had a touchingly wistful, yearning quality.

Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes were more difficult to bring off. Cho rendered the ponderous theme with satisfying gravitas, although there were some overly exaggerated shifts in dynamics and tempo. As he pushed ahead through the variations, he successfully created momentum, but this came at the expense of some details. In Etude 3, for instance, the pianist must project a sighing melody in the left hand above delicate, woodpecker staccato arpeggios in the right, and Cho wasn’t able to convincingly separate each layer of the texture.

The more sentimental movements, like Variation 4 (which Cho interpolated from the posthumous variations published by Brahms after Schumann’s death), were emotionally powerful; in Variation 9, Cho had an acute sense of drama and panache, soaring to the climax of the movement. However, the Finale felt scattered, as if the music was a train at risk of careening off the tracks. This was a problem for Cho in many propulsive movements; he allowed Schumann’s rhythmic drive to slip into chaotic frenzy.

These problems, however, can be forgiven in an artist of Cho’s charisma and personality. He had the audience on his side from the moment he stepped onstage in an oversized white dress shirt and white sneakers, having lost luggage containing his concert suit, as he explained apologetically from the stage. But his casual getup endeared him to the audience even more, who summoned him back for two encores: Wilhelm Kempff’s arrangement of Handel’s Menuett in G Minor, HWV 434/4, and, to the ecstatic delight of all, Chopin’s “Heroic” Polonaise in A-flat Major. This return to Cho’s roots, which he tore through with ferocious, unrestrained abandon, had a freewheeling quality that showed this is an artist unafraid to forge a new path.

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