Music Review: Cliburn winner Vadym Kholodenko wows the crowd at Belmont University

vkBelmont University’s School of Music has forged a fruitful relationship with the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. In recent years, the school has invited finalists from the prestigious Texas-based contest to headline its annual Woods Piano Concert Series. Vadym Kholodenko, the 2013 Cliburn gold medalist, was onstage Thursday night at McAfee Concert Hall.

As a personality, the 28-year-old Kholodenko was very much the serious type. He was all business onstage. As soon as the lights dimmed, he walked quickly to the piano, bowed slightly, and got to work, which in his case meant playing a fiendishly difficult program of Liszt, Debussy and Stravinsky with absolute polish and precision. After tossing off knuckle-busting fare like Liszt’s Funerailles and Hungarian Rhapsody No. 19, Kholodenko rose quickly, half-grinned with regal indifference to the roar of the crowd and left the stage. If any of this music caused him to break into a sweat, he barely showed it.

The first half of Kholodenko’s program was devoted entirely to the music of Liszt. The best of these pieces were the four opening works drawn from the composer’s Years of Pilgrimage. Kholodenko gave thoughtful, lyrical accounts of the two Petrarch sonnets, Nos. 104 and 123, from the Second Year, Italy. His performance of the lovely etude Au bord d’une source, from the First Year, Switzerland, was much less satisfying. This study is supposed to conjure the whispering coolness of a Swiss spring. Kholodenko gave us more of a torrent, resulting in some choppy phrasing and muddied harmonies. In the future, one hopes he tones this music down.

There is some dispute about Liszt’s intention in composing Funerailles. Liszt once said it was a tribute to friends killed in the Hungarian uprising of 1848, but this doesn’t explain the subtitle “October 1849.” More likely, Liszt wrote it as a tribute to Chopin, who died in October 1849. Given that this piece sounds like a tasteless rip-off of Chopin’s Funeral March with the octave section of the Heroic Polonaise tacked on for good measure, it seemed likely that Liszt later tried to hide his tracks. No matter. Kholodenko, like his Ukrainian predecessor Vladimir Horowitz, understands that the main point of the piece is to show off one’s octaves. Suffice it to say Kholodenko let loose with an orgy of octaves.

If Kholodenko’s Liszt was all about wowing the audience, his Debussy, which opened the second half, was about caressing them. His performances of the three pieces from Debussy’s Images, Book 2 were remarkable for their flowing lines and sensuous tones. Kholodenko resisted the urge of marinating his Debussy with too much pedal, opting instead to play with clarity and elegance. Kholodenko closed with one of the great pyrotechnical pieces of the repertory, Stravinsky’s Three Movements from Petrushka. Kholodenko gave a commanding performance, tossing off quicksilver right-hand passages with pizazz, playing big left-hand jumps with the accuracy of a marksman.

One half expected Kholodenko to play Horowitz’s Carmen Variations as an encore. Instead, he gave us a welcome surprise – his own arrangement of the Nachtmusik II from Mahler’s Seventh Symphony. Kholodenko played every note with tenderness and sweet sensitivity.

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About John Pitcher

John Pitcher is the chief classical music, jazz and dance critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He has been a classical music critic for the Washington Post, the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle, National Public Radio’s Performance Today (NPR), and the Nashville Scene. His writings about music and the arts have also appeared in Symphony Magazine, American Record Guide and Stagebill Magazine, among other publications. Pitcher earned his master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he studied arts writing with Judith Crist and Phyllis Garland. His work has received the New York State Associated Press award for outstanding classical music criticism.