Stunning New Album by Pianist Seong-Jin Cho Marks Centennial of Debussy’s Passing

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The music of Claude Debussy (1862-1918) was my first major classical discovery, and I’ve written before about my deep love for his music. Debussy’s compositions were revolutionary for his time, representing an original and utterly new style. His music sounded enigmatic and mysterious, and would feature whole-tone runs inspired by Balinese gamelan music he first heard at the 1889 Paris World’s Fair. His musical canvases have been compared to the paintings of Monet, Degas and Cézanne; like them, he was called an impressionist. Debussy loved abstraction, often using no particular harmonic tonal center, which gives his piano works an otherworldly feel. On “La Cathédrale Engloutie” (The Sunken Cathedral) for instance, Debussy’s pedal work makes the piano sound like it’s underwater.

To mark the centennial of Debussy’s death, Deutsche Grammphon just released a stunning new recording of his piano works by the young South Korean pianist Seong-Jin Cho. Numerous great pianists such as Walter Gieseking, Claudio Arrau, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, and Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, have recorded Debussy. And although he is only 23 years old, I think Cho’s new recording belongs in such legendary company. He superbly captures and sings the beauty of Debussy’s works throughout the lovely new album.

Pianist Seong-Jin Cho (Photo by Harald Hoffmann) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Cho has been enamored of Debussy for a long time for one so young. In fact, he performed Debussy’s Children’s Corner Suite in his very first recital when he was just eleven. On the new album titled Debussy, Cho performs Images Book 1 & 2, Children’s Corner Suite, Suite Bergamasque, and the ebullient l’Isle Joyeuse. He chose his Steinway carefully to have a less brilliant, more dampened sound that characterizes Debussy’s abstract piano music. “It was important for me to be able to produce very delicate and quiet sounds that retain their delicacy and range of color even when played pianissimo.”

Cho moved to Paris five years ago from South Korea for a period of intense study with pianist Michel Béroff, a Debussy expert at the Paris Conservatoire. The City of Light – it’s history, art, music, architecture – influenced and provided inspiration to Cho. Living, exploring, and studying in Paris brought him closer to Debussy’s world, the places he knew, and their spirit. Hear Cho speak of his love of Debussy and Paris in this clip:

Watch as Cho performs Debussy at a concert in Brussels this past July: