Vadym Kholodenko won gold in the 2013 Van Cliburn Competition. The tour inked on the heels of the triumph crisscrossed the lower 48 and finally made it to our neck of the woods, a very long way from Ft. Worth. Sold-out Shalin Liu center in Rockport had a chance to experience real piano magic as the leftover waves from last night’s storm were crashing in Sandy Bay, safely distant and free of menace.
In his rather difficult-to-understand introduction, the pianist told how his vision of Schumann’s Nachtstücke approached Dutch genre painting. And the interpretation that followed was indeed a bit closer to night as a party time rather than a brooding time. Still the right balance was there: Trauerzug got respect, unlike in a Gilels recording that I revisited after the concert, where it is almost comically rushed through. The scenes from Kuriose Gesellschaft and Nachtliches Gelage pieces were appropriately lively, but short of grotesque that a more literal interpretation of the suite’s funereal context demands. Indeed, his interpretation was something of a panorama of life (of which death is a part), seen from above, as in an Averkamp’s painting of a skating crowd. He endowed the following Humoreske Opus 20 with sensitive phrasing and coloring. However distant the early Romantic sense of humor may be from our modern sensibilities, it perfectly rewarded musically.
The second half consisted of Scriabin’s 24 Preludes Opus 11 and Fantasie Opus 28. They could not have been played more beautifully, coming as they did with gorgeous colors, sensitive rubato, and voices not just sounding clearly, but as if breathing independently. I could maybe use a bit more lifeblood—not just perfect finger work—in the 3rd prelude marked Vivo as it sounded a little too distant for my taste. But then again, there isn’t a single forte marking in it, and it may be just that my ear has been forever damaged by some idiomatic, which is to say over the top, Scriabin performances.
When introducing the second half, the pianist jokingly mentioned a friend’s reference to its program as even more boring than the first half. Whether it is his own style, or they just teach self-deprecating humor as an audience winning strategy out there in Texas, I was really puzzled. Why would an hour of some of the best music written for piano performed by a pianist, for whom nothing seems impossible, ever be described as boring? Self-deprecation may be a differentiator to place one’s self apart from fellow Russian School exports, whose demonic manner at the keyboard is a reliable source of piquant pleasure for the public, but one also expects a certain level of seriousness of interpretation. One may be permitted to ignore Scriabin’s tempo markings, the way Richter did on occasion, but at no tempo can one imagine a self-deprecating Scriabin.
The single encore, Purcell’s Ground in C Minor, was of course played from memory, but I could not help imagining what it would be like to observe this pianist through hours of his highly reputed sight reading.
29-year-old Kholodenko, who grew up as a wunderkind in Kiev and finished his studies in the class of Vera Gornostaeva at Moscow Conservatory, very much bears the flame of the Russian School, and incidentally, provides yet another reminder of how unnatural the newly cooked antagonism between Russian and Ukrainian culture really is. He spent most of his life on the competition circuit and seemed genuinely relieved when the gold at the Cliburn brought that period to an end. He has won prizes and accolades and now seems to be at the height of his power: his fingers seem to fly effortlessly and achieve consistent transparency of textures. It will be fascinating to watch which way he turns.