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The Celebrity Series’ presented Ukrainian pianist Vadym Kholodenko, gold medal winner of the 14th Van Cliburn Competition, in a recital at Longy’s Pickman Hall Wednesday night. Still in his twenties, Kholodenko, is making his mark on the international concert scene with performances across the globe even before he won the Cliburn.
While his Boston debut indicated that his career will most likely be successful, it also showed that he is still a young artist at the beginning of it. The concert’s second half proved that Kholodenko has the technical and interpretive chops to be a world-class virtuoso, but the first half proved more uneven.
The opening piece was Handel’s Chaccone in G Major, HWV 435, a modest but relentless series of rapid-fire variations that quickly unfold from good-mannered beginnings to multi-layered virtuosity. Kholodenko elicited a tone both sumptuous and crisp, an approach perhaps necessary when playing baroque music on a modern piano. The piece was wonderfully played, setting up an expectation that would not be met until later in the evening.
What followed were two Mozart rondos, the D Major K. 485 and the A minor K. 511. Almost instantaneously, but definitely by the second rondo, it became evident one was hearing a different performer, with the Mozart works performed stone-faced and stoically. Kholodenko has a superb ear for texture, but it often led him to find humor in the strangest places – amid texture rather than content. Certain ranges and chordal textures enticed him to play with grace and wit, while major structural elements of the pieces, including direct modulations, deceptive cadences, truncated (or protracted) phrases, passed with little or no comment from the performer.
The Beethoven Sonata that followed (No. 10) got a little hotter under the collar, but was largely cut from the same cloth. It is not that there was no humor, or even that the presence of humor was necessary; it was, as with the Mozart, that the works seemed presented to the audience, rather than performed.
In the second half Kholodenko came alive. Opening with Debussy’s Children’s Corner’s Suite, it was immediately apparent that this was repertoire he related to in a deeper, more real and inspiring way with creating a finely crafted miniature in each movement. The sharp runs of “Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum” were clean and lean, “Jimbo’s Lullaby” benefitted greatly from Kholodenko’s keen sense of texture, and his vital and inventive “The Little Shepherd” sounded like the eponymous lad was taking pan-pipe lessons from Thelonius Monk.
In the more substantial selections from Images that followed, Kholodenko showed more of his artistic muscle. At last the performer sounded completely at ease with this musical world, and the satisfying musical moments flowed. In “Cloches à travers les feuilles,” Kholodenko juggled at least three and sometimes more levels of texture, crafting them clearly. The doubled notes in “Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut” shimmered like the Symbolist poets’ words or the Impressionists’ landscapes.
The concert concluded with Balakirev’s virtuosic Islamey, another work in which Kholodenko flourished.