In Vadym Kholodenko, talent and tragedy mix

In January 2014, Delos released a solo recording by a 26-year-old Ukrainian pianist, Vadym Kholodenko, who six months earlier had taken gold at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. On it is a lovely performance of an untroubled Tchaikovsky-Rachmaninoff lullaby that Kholodenko had likely played for his young daughter.

Nobody could have expected Kholodenko on Saturday night, in his Los Angeles (but not Southern California) debut at the Valley Performing Arts Center, to look or sound untroubled. Three days earlier, the pianist’s estranged wife, Sofya Tsygankova, had been indicted in Texas on capital murder charges in the deaths of their two daughters, ages  1 and 5. Kholodenko had discovered the girls suffocated in their beds in March and Tsygankova bleeding from possibly self-inflicted stab wounds when he went to visit at their home outside of Fort Worth. Tsygankova has pleaded not guilty.

It would be disingenuous not to acknowledge that Kholodenko had to be an object of a certain sensationalist fascination for much of the audience Saturday. He is a physically undemonstrative player, but his performances of works by Liszt and Scriabin -- two composers and great pianists for whom sensationalism was not a foreign concept – were emotionally draining.

His first encore was none other than that Tchaikovsky lullaby, this time played with almost unbearably grave solemnity. I cannot say whether this was an act of psychological courage, pianistic therapy or simple, if profound, professionalism. Possibly, it was a rare combination of all three. 

One of Kholodenko’s two most notable qualities as a pianist are his stunning ringing tone, which allows him to leave notes hanging in the air longer than the physics of acoustics would suggest is possible. The other is an opposite crisp and spectacular digital speed. Both were on display Saturday in far more extreme ways than can be heard on his recordings, including the impressive live performances from the competition that the Cliburn has released.

The Liszt/Scriabin program tied into the American Liszt Society’s annual Liszt Festival,  held this year at Cal State Northridge and focusing on Liszt and Russia. Thoughts about Liszt’s influence were in the air.

The latest recording by maverick Italian pianist Marino Formenti, “Liszt Inspections,” focuses on how the Hungarian composer foreshadowed the avant-garde likes of Ligeti, Berio, Stockhausen, Feldman and even John Adams’ “China Gates” (which Kholodenko happened to play with extraordinary luminosity in the Cliburn).  The featured Scriabin work on Kholodenko’s recital was an early set of 24 preludes. It just so happened that another new recording by an Italian pianist, Vanessa Benelli Mosell, released Friday, pairs these Opus 11 Preludes with Stockhausen.

Kholodenko, however, seemed understandably less interested in where the music might have been historically leading than where it personally had led him, which was all over the place. He began a strangely skewed Liszt first half with three works from the composer’s pilgrimage series by bringing a deliberate slowness to character pieces inspired by Petrarch Sonnets 104 and 123. Here, Kholodenko seemed reluctant to let go of each gorgeously rounded note he produced. In a nocturne evoking the bells of Geneva, he then turned each into an epic tolling.

That led to the 19th and last of Liszt’s Hungarian rhapsodies. Rather than being treated as a great showpiece, it became dark and tense, even a little ominous. Kholodenko ended where others would have begun, with the Invocation that opens Liszt’s series called “Harmonies Poétiques et Religieuses.” It too was slow and subdued, but the climax had majestic power.

In the short, early Scriabin preludes -- which are as much Chopinesque as they are Lisztian -- Kholodenko became more manic. Slow ones were unrelievedly elegiac; fast ones, too furious to make out the details.  In Scriabin’s Fantasie, Opus 28, the Russian composer’s more ecstatic and mystical sides begin to show themselves. From this,  Kholodenko used every ounce of passion he could find, as though losing himself in an overpowering Scriabin trance.

The encores following the lullaby were Purcell’s Ground, with the Baroque score allowing surprising wit and flair as though by a pianist reborn, while a movement from Schumann’s “Night Music,” exquisitely concentrated, quieted nerves that very much needed quieting.

We will need time to see in what directions Kholodenko develops as an artist. His Valley recital was likely a special case. But there is little doubt that he is a pianist of stature. He will return to Southern California for a recital at the Ventura Music Festival in July and as a soloist with the New West Symphony in November.


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