Portland Piano International review: Vadym Kholodenko

Vadym Kholodenko performed at Portland Piano International. Photo: Jim Leisy.

Vadym Kholodenko performed at Portland Piano International. Photo: Jim Leisy.

by JANA HANCHETT

Last year’s Van Cliburn competition gold medalist, Vadym Kholodenko, represents much more for today’s piano lovers than just a prize racehorse who just won the pianistic equivalent of the Kentucky Derby. For example, not many internationally renowned solo pianists focus on four-hand repertoire, but the young Ukrainian’s recordings as iDuo with fellow pianist Andrey Gugnin are exquisite. In addition, and highly refreshing, Kholodenko is a promoter of new works, and most notably performs music written by his friend, Alexy Kurbatov.

Kholodenko’s own fresh 27 years help him connect to more current sounds; he famously stated that he would drop everything if Radiohead asked him to perform with them on one of their concerts.

“Concert managers need to create series where a percentage of repertoire performed is new works,” Kholodenko says. We know that closed systems die; we need fresh blood.”

Yet despite his youth and interest in contemporary works, no 21st century music appeared on his Portland Piano International concerts last Sunday and Monday evening at Lincoln Hall. “Many of my [musician] friends are doing a lot of interesting things,” Kholodenko told ArtsWatch. “But for me, this traditional repertoire is what I love, and I do what I love. Right now I am emotionally very much in the world of Rachmaninov. Perhaps that is not where I will be in five years, but this is where I am now. Each piece I play feels like another world. It takes time to hear everything and each time you revisit a piece, you discover something new.”

New PPI artistic director Arnaldo Cohen has said that he is pushing PPI artists to take advantage of the two-recital format and be more daring with their programming choices; the fact that this hasn’t happened is concerning to me as a representative of the younger audience. Case in point: according to the original 2013-2014 PPI brochure, the next PPI artist Daniil Trifonov was scheduled to perform Arnold Schoenberg’s exquisite Three Pieces, Op. 11, but now on the PPI website it shows that Trifonov is playing  Chopin preludes (not again!). A series like that suggested by Kholodenko is necessary if PPI hopes to achieve contemporary relevance.

As PPI’s double-concert format encourages, Kholodenko did present two less familiar pieces, albeit still well within the boundaries of standard repertoire. Sunday’s concert opened with Rachmaninov’s monstrous Sonata no. 1 in D minor, op. 28. “Rachmaninov, for me, is the number one pianist because of his passion and nobility of sound,” he says. “Like Heifetz and Rubinstein, Rachmaninov represents the old school of musicians, and I am drawn to this sound. Today, music is at the fingertips. Anyone can print off the music and produce a factory version of the piece. But the old school possessed absolute precision of sound combined with a deep understanding of the music.”

Kholodenko certainly possesses this nobility of sound and Kholodenko’s fingers pull the listener into ever-changing landscapes. Rachmaninov’s first piano sonata is a sprawling work pushing 40 minutes, its long, drawn-out themes fragmented by frequent modulations and vicious runs. This 1907 sonata seemed to stretch the audience’s capacity for attention and less sophisticated listeners most likely would have clapped at awkward moments. But Kholodenko’s pianism coupled with PPI’s keen audience created a rewarding atmosphere. His commitment to the sonata’s harmonic rhythm imparted to listeners an obsessive compulsion to keep climbing the next hill for a clearer view. For example, the start of the first movement races through one hair-raising modulation after another. Like a kayaker taking tumble after tumble, unable to find a way out of the rapids, Kholodenko pushed through the phrases, allowing the jagged accents to jar the sense of line and tunnel it further downward until resting for almost 30 (!) measures before returning to the white water.

Given his love of chamber music and his love of Rachmaninov, it makes sense that Kholodenko would perform a set of Rachmaninov’s transcriptions. “It is not for me to say if Bach, Schubert, or Mendelssohn would approve of these transcriptions,” he explains. “What I will say is that Bach’s music can be played on any instrument and still capture the essence of the composition, because Bach wrote for music itself.” While all of the transcriptions were performed with the delight of a wide-eyed child showing everyone his most precious treasures, Tchaikovsky’s “Lullaby” from Six Romances was the most breath-taking — literally, as the audience didn’t dare wiggle even a toe until Kholodenko turned to “Polka de V.R.”

Returning to Bach, Kholodenko’s most refined moment happened in his second encore on Sunday evening when he performed J.S. Bach’s Prelude in E minor BWV 855a arranged by Alexander Siloti in B minor. Kholodenko made this centuries-old piece sound surprisingly new. People leaving looked at each other asking, “Was that really Bach?” Like mallets gently hitting the keyboard, Kholodenko’s fingers played evenly with very little rubato. Like the feeling one gets when sitting alone at dusk in a southwest desert, each sound layer was carefully contained within its own dynamic range creating a sense of vast space inhabited by a single person. This minimalistic approach felt modern, not dusty and sung from afar or over-perfumed and shoved in your face.

For his second lesser-known repertoire choice, Kholodenko began Monday night’s concert with Nikolai Medtner’s Forgotten Melodies (Vergessene Weisen), op. 38. For most of us, these “forgotten” works from the 1920s and ’30s might as well mean “never heard.” The set features bits of ragtime, chromatic pointillism, sultry jazz harmonies, and complicated meter changes that feel somehow folksy and natural. Kholodenko’s fingers were like many drumsticks, brushes, and mallets. Deftly firm, his level wrist and high-finger approach lent a solid rhythmic undercurrent to his overall performance. Two ladies behind me practically swooned over his fourth and fifth fingers. Like a percussionist who can be both delicate and bombastic, Kholodenko changed articulations instantly, like in the seventh melody’s dance for the forest, “Danza silvestra,” which changes meters constantly and switches from light, staccato fairy flitting to troll-like jigging.

To ask which takes precedence, melody or rhythm, raises the whole chicken vs. egg conundrum; ultimately, Kholodenko’s sense of time structured his sound. In the sixth melody “Canzona serenata,” it would be easy to focus on the left hand’s triplet harmonic figure as the organizing gesture. Kholodenko didn’t give the audience even a rhythmic reason to hear these boring triplets, playing them almost pianissimo as his right hand swung the duple melody up and away into a million bells of driving clarity. In contrast, the eighth melody “Alla Reminiscenza” features a nostalgic quasi-waltz rhythm in the left hand which is off-kilter to the right hand melody; Kholodenko was calmly insistent with this idiomatic pattern, bringing awareness to the tension that memories often give to even the most freeing thoughts.

As Cohen stated in introducing Monday night’s concert, “I will not say more because it’s needless to say anything.” Just listen:

Were you at either of Vadym Kholodenko’s PPI performances? How did his performance appeal to you as a listener in the 21st century? If you heard him perform Rachmaninoff’s first piano sonata, what was your reaction?

Jana Hanchett is a pianist, teacher, and writer living in Portland.

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