Review: Cliburn winner turns in gold-worthy performance

Posted 7:15am on Wednesday, Sep. 11, 2013

Somewhere, Van Cliburn is smiling.

That’s because Vadym Kholodenko, the Ukrainian pianist who is currently the leading ambassador of Cliburn’s name as the gold medalist at the recent 14th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, presented a recital at Bass Hall on Tuesday that further proved how worthy he is to wear that hard-won honor. And what a superb choice he is to keep the torch of Cliburn’s memory burning.

Kholodenko’s program was as inspired in its design as it was in its execution. It was an all-Rachmaninoff program, sort of.

The first half of Tuesday’s Cliburn Concerts presentation was devoted to a single piece: the Piano Sonata No. 7 in E Minor by Nikolai Medtner, a Russian-born contemporary of Rachmaninoff who, like Rachmanioff, lived most of his life outside of his homeland. Medtner dedicated this work to Rachmaninoff.

And in the incredibly able hands of Kholodenko, it was easy to understand why. Like so many of Rachmaninoff’s compositions, the sprawling sonata was built on a foundation of Romanticism and then glazed with a Modernist sheen. The piece rolled, wept, danced, charged furiously and occasionally tossed in a little joke over its ever-changing musical landscape. But no matter what turns the sonata took as its five sections bled together without pause, Kholodenko was right there with it, maintaining the work’s constant sense of forward motion. It was an amazing 32 minutes of pure bliss.

The second half of the recital, performed before a crowd of about 1,000, could hardly have been more different — while sticking to the evening’s Rachmaninoff theme.

The seven pieces offered after intermission were all Rachmaninoff transcriptions of works by other composers. They ranged from Bach’s Suite from the Partita in E Minor from his famous set of sonatas and partitas for solo violin to Polka de V.R., a little piece inspired by a tune remembered from childhood that the composer erroneously thought was composed by his father (hence the V.R.). And all honored their source material while also having ample evidence of Rachmaninoff’s genius and personality.

Kholodenko dispatched each one with incredible ease. The Bach was cute and fun, Schubert’s Wohin? was appropriately lilting, and the two works adapted from Rachmaninoff’s friend and frequent collaborator, Liebslied and Liebesfreud by the great violinist Fritz Kreisler, made you feel both of those legendary virtuosos were standing before you.

Kholodenko’s take on the scherzo from Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream may have been a bit rushed in the beginning (Ah ha! He’s mortal), but it also had some of the most gorgeously feather-like playing of the night.

The 27-year-old pianist finished with two encores not related to Rachmaninoff — a Horowitz transcription of an aria from Bizet’s Carmen and Sparks by Moritz Moszkowski — that were as wonderful as everything that had come before them.

All in all, that Cliburn gold medal has seldom looked better around anyone’s neck.

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