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Kholodenko’s Comic Keyboard Sensibility


Vadym_Kholodenko (file photo)
Vadym Kholodenko (file photo)

The playing of the 28-year-old Ukraine-born pianist Vadym Kholodenko, gold-medal winner of last year’s Cliburn Competition, is already so pellucid, so colorful, so close to technically flawless that it leaves the mouth open but disinclined to comment. Or almost. Wednesday night in a Celebrity Series recital at Longy, the Cliburn laureate offered up an unusual motley of fare, Handel to Classical to Balakirev to Glazunov. (Along with Longy, BMInt’s own David Griesinger and his wife, Harriet, sponsor the Celebrity’s Debut Series, of which this event was one.)

Pickman Hall provides unusual presence and clarity. That judgment is from row E but I bet it’s true everywhere in this small venue. Perhaps in consequence, Handel’s Chaconne in G major initially sounded notey and disorganized, neither shapely nor particularly Baroque-logical, until the last of the 21 variations, where the composer combines forces and strands to motor along in high style like no one else, and here Kholodenko got it together and drove it home.

It’s easy for Mozart’s offhand D major Rondo K.485 to sound a bit insipid or at least porcelainized; Kholodenko only partly avoided that outcome. A year later but worlds apart in mood is the blue Rondo in A Minor  K.511, whose dejection the pianist got, and conveyed. The high point of the Classical set, maybe the entire recital, was the pianist’s exceedingly funny performance of the 28-year-old Beethoven’s exceedingly funny Sonata No. 10, Opus 14 No. 2, written only years before, and few Viennese blocks away from, the Mozart. This sonata is as nifty and laugh-out-loud a tribute to teacher Haydn as is imaginable, flowing with quips and tricks broad and reversed, and our recitalist got instantly to the point of milking it but without going over. It was one of the more amazing amusing performances I’ve ever witnessed, not Victor Borge but sly, poking and prodding, subtle and bald, hidden elbow and wink, all just perfectly gauged. (Alfred Brendel, ever going on about his attentiveness to wit, misses it totally in his rendition.) I wasn’t the only audience member quietly gasping and smiling. Quite a display of understanding.

Part of the success was that we were primed. The young man comes onstage like the best 1940s-movie waiter ever, a little prim and a little twinkly, with whatever the positive word for smirk is, lips a little puckered, tongue ready for drollery, deadpan, while excellently mannered as well. Simply marvelous faces throughout the evening. Concertgoers of a certain age and different type may well be reminded of one of the Rascals or the Who.

Debussy took us into the 20th century with his world of effects, Children’s Corner and Images II. Amid many satisfactions, yet again a certain “notiness,” it seemed also that a little something was sometimes missing as to, I don’t know, idiom and musicality, those vaguest of characterizations. Blur and color wash were mostly absent; more pedaling might have helped Impressionism in that acoustical space. The composer’s riff on cakewalking came off actually pretty stiff under Kholodenko’s hands. The recital centerpiece was Mily Balakirev’s 1869 Islamey, densely melodic while wildly difficult, written quickly, highly influential, and best of all folk-coloristic (a tour of the Caucasus inspired it). This player nailed it.

Encores comprised one of Nikolai Medtner’s “Tales,” from the same years as the Debussy but presaging Rachmaninoff, and finally an Alexander Glazunov slow quasi-boogie, whose facetious fun got even wittier comic treatment than the Beethoven. The performer’s faces mobilized further, his tongue slipped behind pursed lip, sometimes sticking out just a little (at one point I fleetingly thought he might be chewing gum), a master wag at work: wonderful. I was hoping “Boris the Spider” was going to be next.

David Moran has been an occasional Boston-area music critic for 45 years, with special interest in the keyboard.


2 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. A terrifically astute account of this marvelous – that is, replete with marvels – recital.

    My sense of the Handel Chaconne in G was that the artist hadn’t quite taken the acoustical measure of the room yet, as frequently happens in piano performance, and only near the end began to recalibrate to a hall full of bodies. (It may seem strange, but I’ve often felt a two-way process underway, like a candle burning both ends toward the middle, as the ears of audience and pianist converge during the first piece or two.) Things started getting wondrous, a bit earlier for me than Mr. Moran, when Handel and Kholodenko masterfully downshifted to the first minor variation with its spacious, elegant poignance – a harbinger of things to come in K511.

    I just loved VK’s Mozart, without any great reservation. The most memorable live performance of the A minor Rondo for me till now had been Rudolf Serkin’s valedictory at SH in the late 1980s, but what a different kind of wonderful this one was! Apollonian, like a superbly-honed blade cutting through to the existential – it sent me chills along with wonder.

    Like the reviewer, I found the Beethoven about as wry as you can get, although perhaps a little too deadpan at times. This is, after all, vigorous young, whip-it-out Beethoven, albeit in subdued mode – to carry forward Mr. Moran’s surprising if dubious analogy, like Pete Townsend and The Who doing “A Quick One, While He’s Away” live at Leeds. What was most striking here was VK’s magical control over the proceedings – another marvel, really.

    For me, the Debussy set was the high point of this performance. One knew from the opening notes of Jimbo’s Lullaby that this artist was unafraid to venture into deep silence and the subtlest beauty, which became utterly transfixing in Serenade for the doll. He also caught the natty jaunt of Golliwogg’s cakewalk, although perhaps a little less gentle laughter after the Tristan quotes than the composer had hoped for. It was in Images, Bk II, though, that I heard Vadim Kholodenko most distinguish himself, ironically by disappearing into the shimmering, everchanging textures of what I’ve often felt were Debussy’s greatest pianistic achievements. I kept feeling my jaw drop, and heart float aloft, during these pieces – especially as VK and the moon traversed the ancient temple.

    Like these performances, this recital was a gem, or many. Marvelously compact, subtle, lapidary – Vadim Kholodenko’s way with the piano is an ocean and an era or two apart from today’s competition prizewinners and piano rock stars. I actually felt a pang about this, concerned that a pianist of such understated mastery and wit may well disappear before we’ve had the chance to hear his unique genius develop more fully. I for one am looking forward to more.

    Comment by nimitta — October 31, 2014 at 9:15 am

  2. Thank you again for compliment. I sensed the Debussy might be rather better than my experience. I too look forward to Kholodenko’s development, not always the case with others of his cohort.

    Some have pointed out that the tongue-tip-showing signifies concentration, actually, as with Jimmy Fallon signing thank-you notes or Keith Moon determining when to catch his sticks twirling in the air. It is true that this pianist watches his hands at work (reliable, confident, cleanly poking at our senses) even more intently than the norm, as if they were independent beasties at play, with lives of their own. Great fun to watch as well as hear.

    Comment by David Moran — October 31, 2014 at 2:30 pm

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