Culture.pl invites you to read our interview with the winner of the 17th Frederick Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw. It is most likely the sole interview from the Warsaw Competition given by Seong-Jin Cho in his native Korean.
This is Seong-Jin Cho's fifth visit to Poland, and, as he himself claims "I think I will be coming back here rather often". It is here that he will record his album with the renowned Deutsche Grammophon label, and it is here that he will start out on his exceptionally long concert tour, as part of which he will visit Wrocław, Katowice, London, Paris, Tokyo, Beijing, and Shanghai as well as other European and Asian cities. On 2nd February, 2016, he is to play a concert in Seoul. This performance is a huge event, as it has been a long time since his last performance in his home country. The occasion is without doubt also a huge one for Koreans. After the announcement of the competition’s results, his name was the most frequently searched keyword on Google – never before has a Korean pianist enjoyed such fame, at least not on the Internet.
Ewa Paszkowicz, Filip Lech: You already have a lot of experience of winning Chopin competitions. In 2008, you won in Moscow, and now the time has come for Warsaw. What does it feel like to win a Chopin competition?
Seong-Jin Cho: I was very happy when I won the competition in 2008, but it cannot be in any way compared to the joy I feel now. I'm also a little bit worried, I have to plan a lot of concerts for the coming months and I don't want to disappoint anyone. It is actually an overwhelming experience, a lot of people that I didn't know before are suddenly trying to contact me.
Do you have any advice for young pianists who would want to take part in the Chopin competition in 5 years?
I don't think I'm ready to give such advice to someone yet. Maybe in 10 years? I had been wanting to take part in the Warsaw Chopin Competition for a long time, but I made the final decision in November of last year. I was preparing for less than a year. When it comes to the repertoire, I knew the pieces that I prepared because I had been playing them since childhood. So, if I was going to give any advice, then I would like to emphasise that Chopin’s pieces cannot be learned in one day – really, a lot of time and practice is required, especially in comparison to other composers.
Why is Chopin more difficult to learn that other composers?
It’s difficult to explain. For example, Chopin’s Prelude a-moll is a very short composition, it does not have many notes and one does not need such sophisticated piano skills in order to play it. But, nonetheless, there is something about this piece, that the longer you play it, the more difficult it seems to be. In the beginning you get the impression of it sounding very good, but the better I got to know the piece, the worse it started to sound when I played it… And this process of achieving a satisfying way of playing it is very slow. I have similar feelings when learning to play Mozart.
How long does it take you to learn a new piece?
Of course, it depends on the piece, there is an infinite amount of music for the piano. Sometimes I start to think that I've managed to master playing a piece, but when I listen to my performance a year later, it almost always sounds a bit strange to me.
When I observe very young pianists who perform in piano competitions I think to myself – where do they draw their inspiration from for such serious music? For example, the work of Chopin, there are many joyous moments in it, but in the end it is music that is filled with sadness, suffering and longing. Where do you draw your inspiration from, what helps you to transmit the emotions inscribed in Chopin’s notes?
You certainly cannot invent sad or depressing situations on purpose (laughs). Music simply speaks to me in a natural way. I will give the example of Chopin’s Sonata b-moll, which is very tragic. If someone likes music and listens to it often, then upon hearing this sonata they will definitely feel the emotions that they wish to convey by playing it. Even if I haven't experienced anything tragic in my life, I simply find it in the music.
And do you study Chopin’s life, do you read a lot about him?
Yes, I read a lot about Chopin’s life, the book that I remember best is Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger’s Chopin vu par ses élèves (Chopin Through the Eyes of His Students), which I read in French. I live in Paris now, I have visited Chopin’s grave, and the places he lived.
How much of Chopin’s personality is there in the pieces that you perform?
Not only in the case of Chopin, but also in the case of the work of other composers, I try to first and foremost understand the mind of the composer and get a feel it for myself as much as possible.
What kind of repertoire do you enjoy playing the most, besides Chopin?
Since childhood, I have been playing pieces by Mozart, Beethoven and music by Chopin’s close friend, Schumann. I also like Schubert.
What do you listen to in your free time?
To be honest, I don’t like rock and pop music. In my free time, I only listen to classical music (smiles). I listen to a lot of Chopin, but I am also inspired by orchestral music. I often go back to Mahler.
What kind of influence did your teacher Michel Béroff have on you?
Michel Béroff did not force anything on me from the start, lessons with him are more like meetings during which we talk and discuss my playing. Michel always tries to understand me, only sometimes does he point to things that he thinks I ought to change.
If you had the chance to meet Chopin in person now, what would you tell him, or what would you like to ask him?
Chopin? Now? (laughs) "Excuse me, could you play for me, sir?”. And if I could ask a second question, I would say "Could you play again?”
Which pianist has had the biggest influence on you?
Ever since I was little, I've listened to the recordings of Radu Lupu and Krystian Zimerman. The concerts played together with Mikhail Pletnev, a Russian conductor, helped me a lot. He gave me a lot of precious advice after each concert.
We've heard that during your stay in Poland now, you are eating a lot of Polish food. What is your favourite dish?
Pierogi! I also ate golonka [pork knuckle], which was really delicious!
Polish golonka did not resemble the one you have in Korea?
I think that the Polish golonka was more tasty than the Korean one (laughs).
Thank you for the conversation, kamsahamnida!
Translated by Paulina Schlosser, 27/10/2015