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.